GOOD COMPANY

Feast of friends


HOSTS RAVI AND SMITA AHUJA AND GUESTS ENJOY A LIVELY DINNER CONVERSATION

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2005 at 1:20 p.m.

It’s 8 a.m. in the India Station neighborhood of Haile Plantation, and Marla and Roger Reece are already out in their yard, taking advantage of one of the first cool mornings of the fall season to do a little gardening. Marla breathes in the crisp morning air and catches a whiff of something at once foreign and yet strangely familiar…a blend of cumin, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric, better known to most Americans as curry.

“Smita’s cooking!” Marla announces to Roger, a technical marketing consultant for Energizer. Smita and her husband Ravindra (Ravi) Ahuja, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at UF, live next door to the Reeces. And now that the Ahujas’ new addition — an enlarged lanai, swimming pool and spa — is complete, Smita is able to open up the house and shuttle between the stove in the kitchen to the one on the lanai when she cooks. It takes practically all day and both cooktops for Smita to prepare the home-cooked Indian meal she’s got planned for the neighborhood party she and Ravi are hosting this evening.

Fortunately, Marla and Roger are invited to this informal gathering of neighbors and friends in celebration of the new renovations, and by 8 p.m., they’re sampling some of the delectable fruits of Smita’s day-long labor of love—samosas (flake pastry filled with potatoes and peas) served with a cilantro/mint chutney, matar paneer (peas and cottage cheese dumplings in sauce), dam aloo (potatoes in yogurt sauce), baigan (baked eggplant), amirch (egg and tricolored pepper), cucumber raita (cucumber in fresh mint yogurt), pulao (rice with cashew nuts and raisins), puri and nan (breads).

For the Ahujas, these kinds of gatherings aren’t just a once-a-year thing, explains Marla. “They entertain like this at least once a month. We used to call Smita the Martha Stewart of the neighborhood,” she says with a laugh. “But we stopped saying that when we realized maybe that’s not such a good thing anymore,” now that the domestic diva has spent time in prison for insider trading.

Indeed, the home, the table settings, the food and the seamless service enjoyed by the Ahujas’ 20 guests easily rivals the best that Martha Stewart could deliver. The home, custom built for the Ahujas in 2001 by Carter Construction Company, is a 4,650-square-foot blend of contemporary and traditional features. When the Ajuhas moved from Massachusetts to Gainesville in 1998, they brought with them a love of colonial-style crown moldings, a feature they had incorporated into almost every room in the house, including the new lanai. When they decided to add a pool and spa to their home, it quickly became apparent that the lanai would also need to be enlarged if they wanted to entertain outdoors. The resulting construction of Wedgwood blue walls, white Greco- Roman columns and a ceiling trimmed with white crown moldings makes the area feel almost like an outdoor living room.

“Every time I come here, Ravi is out on the patio sofa with his laptop,” says Ann Moore, a neighbor and friend.

A SPECIAL NEIGHBORHOOD

Robert Frost once wrote “Good fences make good neighbors,” but that’s probably because he didn’t live in India Station.

“This is one of the first times I’ve lived someplace where I’ve really gotten to know my neighbors,” says Ann. It’s a sentiment that is repeated over and over by virtually all of the guests who live in India Station.

Stephanie Wester, a retired school teacher who moved here with her husband, Bill, a year ago from Lady Lake, says she was amazed at how the people here immediately took them in, even though the Westers were somewhat older than many of their neighbors.

Bill, who played for the Gators in 1950 and 1951, “back when it was an amateur sport” agrees. “Everyone goes out of their way to meet you,” he says.

The neighborhood is comprised of an eclectic group of people, says Geoffrey Moore, a chartered accountant who is originally from Great Britain. Moore spent a number of years working in Bermuda before moving here with his wife Ann in 2002—ostensibly to retire, though it hasn’t happened yet.

“Look at this” he says as he shares a drink and a laugh with his neighbors George Leondis and Alan Reed. “Standing right here we’ve got a Jewish person, a Greek, a Briton… and a Gator!” he says, pulling Bill Wester into the circle of men gathered in the lanai.

Reed, a transplant surgeon at Shands at UF, chimes in, “We are very fortunate to have the neighbors we have...especially when the value of their houses goes up higher than ours!” He glances admiringly around the Ahujas’ new addition.

CLUB CENTRAL

The neighborhood is so wonderful, the neighbors so tight, in fact, that they’ve even formed a couple of informal social clubs.

Many of the women belong to what they jokingly call the “Bucket Club,” a monthly lunchtime gathering of good friends, good spirits and good times. The club got started at the home of Marla Reece, who had bought a small bucket of frozen margarita mix at Stein-Mart a couple of years back. All that was missing was the tequila, which she was more than happy to supply and share with her friends.

“Everyone takes turns hosting it,” says Amy Reed, as she shows neighbor Ann Moore a small photo album containing pictures of her 4-month-old daughter, Ava.

Anyone who attends must bring a bucket containing a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush…just in case they don’t make it home, says Ann.

Beverly Singer spends a good part of the hour before dinner setting a date for the Christmas gathering of the Bucket Club, which she always hosts in her home. At that meeting, the women each purchase a gift for under $10. Then there’s a gift exchange.

“But if you like someone else’s gift better than yours, you can steal it,” says Ann.

The first meetings of the Bucket Club were confined to the neighborhood, which was a safe walk home for anyone who attended. Since the club meetings now have expanded beyond the neighborhood, Beverly and Ann joke that Smita, who doesn’t drink alcohol, also serves as the designated driver.

The clubs are not exclusive, says Geoffrey. They’re more like an insurance that friends get together. “This all got started when some of my friends here asked me what I missed most about Bermuda. I said that I missed having lunch with my friends every Friday.”

TEED OFF

During dinner, the conversation turns toward sports. And with neighbors like Barbara and William Collett, it’s almost not necessary to read the sports page to keep up with the latest on the Lady Gator golfers, the Gator volleyball team, the men’s and women’s basketball teams, or, for that matter, anyone on the professional golf circuit.

“Did you know that Vijay Singh made more money last year than any golfer on the professional circuit?” asks Barbara, who is a charter member and former president of the Lady Gator Golfers Booster Club. Their son, Tom, is the voice of the Gator volleyball and basketball teams. And their grandson, Robert Gates, Jr., is attending Texas A&M University on a full golf scholarship.

With the Collett’s avid interest in golfing, it should come as no surprise that their home sits in such close proximity to the Haile Plantation Golf and Country Club—across from the fairway of the 10th hole. (The Ahujas’, Westers’ and Reeces’ homes back up to the fairway.) And when you live on a golf course, well, you’ve got to expect the occasional stray ball in your yard…and sometimes even through the window. A lively conversation erupts at the table, with numerous anecdotes about residents whose windows have been broken. It happened to the Colletts’ neighbors, Dick and Diane Mahaffey, on the day they decided to buy their India Station house.

Sometimes, Barbara confides, lowering her voice and smiling, “I take one of the golf balls that I’ve picked up off the ground and put it in the front yard of the Mahaffeys’ house.” She loves to see her neighbor’s reaction at the thought of a golf ball making it all the way over the top of his house.

MAKE THAT TO GO

“Chai?” offers Ravi, with a smile as soft as his voice. The guests eagerly place their orders for an after-dinner tea prepared Indian style. Later, while serving a second helping of the hot beverage, Smita explains the difference between tea and chai: “Tea is when you boil the water and then add the milk and sugar and mix it together,” she says, explaining that adding milk tends to cool the tea.

With chai, the milk, water, sugar, loose tea leaves and spices—ginger and crushed green cardamom —are all blended together in the same pot, creating an infusion of flavors that’s distinctly different from English tea. The chai is then poured through a strainer into individual cups.

The chai is so good, in fact, that Amy, who excuses herself to leave just as it’s being served, asks if she can take a little of it home in a togo cup.

Smita doesn’t have any disposable hot drink cups. Instead, she hands Amy one of her china teacups, knowing that the teacup is in good hands with her neighbor down the street, and that it will be returned in good time. It’s just that kind of neighborhood.

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