Tailgate party at Baby Beach

In the late afternoon on the weekends you will find him at the beach, watching his daughter Mahealani bounce and float in the small waves. Ross will be near the lifted down gate of his truck, which is covered with a spread of food: Tupperware containers of chilled cut mango, a slow cooker filled with rice pudding, plates of baked and buttered breadfruit, a small bowl of tako poke. I am always impressed by this impromptu feast, and I have a tendency to look at his food and then look back to my warm water bottle and crumbly granola bar shoved into the pocket of my stroller.

Some of my babies’ first foods came from the gate of Ross’ truck. Sonya’s first mango had her furiously sucking the pit while the juice ran down her chin and onto her chest. Kassy’s first bite of Ross’ warm rice pudding made with sweetened milk had her grunting for more and grabbing for the plastic spoon.

Ross’ generosity with his food at first made me uncomfortable as I never had anything to share except goldfish crackers and a half-smashed banana. But I’ve gotten over all that for two reasons: First of all his cooking is too good to refuse, and second, Ross enjoys watching others eat his food as much as he enjoys making it.

One Sunday this past spring he found out I was throwing a baby shower for a mutual friend and asked me what I was making. I rattled off the menu: fruit salad, cream cheese wraps… and that was all I had so far. Ross told me to make luau stew and gave me the recipe. As the shower approached I became overwhelmed and told Ross I had decided not to make his stew, especially since I had never attempted it before.

The morning of the party we heard a shout from a truck outside our house: “Brother Ryan!” Ross yelled for my husband. When Ryan returned he held a warm pot of freshly made Ross’ luau stew. That afternoon, as the lonely fruit salad sat alone on the table, we ladies in our dresses were scraping the pot for the last of Ross’ stew.

Only once or twice have I been able to offer Ross good food. One of these times was on my wedding anniversary. My husband and I were in our yard with our children when Mahea and Ross stopped by. He entered the yard with an ‘ukulele singing “All I have to offer you is me.” Ryan and I shared a dance as he sang with our babies tugging at our legs.

Afterward I offered Ross a hamburger stuffed with cheese and my mother’s broccoli salad. As we ate I asked him how he had remembered our anniversary. “Oh easy,” he replied. “It’s my birthday.” With that he scooped up his daughter Mahea and headed home to his wife.

Of all his recipes, Ross’ rice pudding is the best— it’s simple, can be served hot or cold, feeds a crowd and is a favorite among children and adults alike. It’s also hard to mess up this recipe. Simply put, this dish is comforting — like seeing Ross’ smiling face upon arriving at the beach.

Mahealani’s Favorite

Rice Pudding

2 cups rice

8 cups water

2 cans sweetened condensed milk

1 stick of butter

1 tsp. vanilla

Rinse rice. In a large crock pot, add rice and water. Set crock pot to high for approximately 2 ? hours, stirring once. Since crock pots vary in time and temperature, taste the rice from time to time. It is done when the water is all gone and the rice is no longer hard.

When rice is done, immediately add in cans of milk, butter and vanilla, and stir until melted and mixed. Serves 12 people, preferably on a windy day at the beach when the sun is fading and little cold bodies are wrapped in towels, hungry.

• Lois Ann Ell is a mother of three and freelance writer living on Kaua‘i.

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