Saturday, September 3, 2011
The Place of Picnics
Don’t neglect picnics. Read that again, so it sticks: don’t neglect picnics! And I’m admonishing myself just as I remind you. I, too, had forgotten the joys that come from a picnic with friends.
Just last week, I lead a group of foodies on a gustatory pilgrimage to Paris, France, and they requested that we have a picnic one afternoon. They weren’t looking for anything grand or gastronomique; rather, they simply wanted a basic French picnic and a couple of hours to enjoy the food, wine, friendship and scenery. They wanted to experience that hallmark of authentic French life, a passion for the joie de vivre.
I’m so glad they insisted we have a picnic; I’d totally forgotten how much fun they are, despite Malacy frequently recommending that we enjoy one (should have listened to her, aye?)
So I planned our picnic, and I’d like to share it with you, albeit in a modified form that will be a bit easier to pull off in an American context.
But before I share a couple of picnic staples, let me just say a few things concerning the rudiments of any picnic.
First of all, a picnic should be impromptu, by which I mean that a picnic should never appeared staged or contrived. You shouldn’t need an Orvis catalogue nor a copy of Food & Wine to pull off an amazing picnic. Rather, a picnic should be spur of the moment and consist of delights that are fresh, easy to procure and easily transported. A memorable picnic, moreover, will seek out the perfect blend between sun and shade, beauty and tranquility.
A picnic is also an intimate event, not intended to exceed six people. When a picnic becomes a tailgate party, the whole concept has changed and loses much of its mystique and charm.
More specifically, the contents of the entire picnic should easily fit into one bag, or, of course, the traditional picnic basket, though I find them clumsy, over-priced and emblematic of the contrived nature of picnics. I do, however, believe you should take real utensils and napkins. Don’t we get enough fake silver and plastic anyways? Napkins can easily be thrown in the wash with your other whites and dirty silverware can be placed in a Ziploc for the ride home.
If some of your potential picnickers include children, throw in a Frisbee, a deck of cards and a kite. They’re cheap, simple, fun and take up very little space in the bag.
Finally, be open to whatever may happen. I’m continually amazed when traditional barriers to dining are removed (i.e., eschewing having a tablecloth clad table, being dressed up, being waited upon, etc.), the whole afternoon becomes a time of laughter, relaxation and blessing. A picnic becomes, then, an extension of a life filled with joy and one that marvels at God’s provision and handiwork in nature. ‘The earth is Lord’s for He made it. Come let us adore Him’, beckons the Psalmist.
A Traditional Picnic
For 4-6 people
Two Loaves of Good Bread – the entirety of a good picnic rises or falls on the quality of the bread. Don’t think for one minute that industrial bread will suffice. Ideally, on the way to the picnic you would stop and pick up a fresh baguette or country loaf. These must be ridiculously fresh, preservative-free and homemade. Find a boulangerie near you, and don’t accept the fact that you don’t have one! Bakers, though they’re quickly becoming harder and harder to find, still make bread in virtually every town across the country.
Two Good Cheeses – I recommend one semi-soft cow’s milk cheese and one mild goat’s cheese. My particular choices of the moment are: Saint-André, a lovely creamy cow’s milk cheese from Coutance, France, and Humboldt Fog, which is an elegant, soft, surface ripened cheese from California. Both of these cheeses, or cheeses like them, are readily available in most specialty grocers in the USA (i.e., Whole Foods, Fresh Market, etc.). Depending on your love of cheese, get a pound of the cow’s milk and ¾ of a pound of the goat’s cheese.
Pâté en croute or Pâté de Foie Gras – If you don’t want to break the bank – and a picnic shouldn’t – ask your local butcher to recommend his best pâté. If, however, you don’t trust your butcher (find a new one!) and you do want to break the bank, you can always order excellent pâté from the likes of Dean & Deluca, Fauchon, DiBruno Brothers and Petrossian. They will ship it right to your door! Or, if you’re more Italian than French, Prosciutto and Sopressata can replace the pâté – a happy heap of both would be ideal. Again, most specialty markets have good Italian cured meats; however, if you’re dead set on spending a ton to get only the best, you can order the finest from DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia. Even Costco has perfectly adequate Prosciutto.
Fresh Fruit – simple enough to be overlooked, but necessary nonetheless. Just pick up something fresh. Don’t bother carving a statue out of a watermelon; just pick up something fresh and tasty. I’m keen at the moment on fresh figs and strawberries. Just rinse and put in a Ziploc.
Something Sweet – I said this was picnic was adapted to American audiences, so why not make brownies or homemade chocolate chip cookies? For boxed brownies use Ghirardelli, and for good homemade chocolate chip cookies, the Joy of Cooking cannot be surpassed.
Water & Wine – one large bottle of water (I prefer sparkling for picnics; Perrier, Pelligrino or Badoit) and one bottle of nice Beaujolais or Rosé from Tavel is all you need. Tavel is a small region northeast of Avignon, France; I’m keen on 2008 Chateau d'Aqueria (bone-dry with crisp acidity and pepper nuances). As far as stemware goes, opt for lowball juice glasses that can be easily transported and won’t break.
Relax & Engage - Don’t rush the moment. Set aside two or three hours to linger over the food, the scenery and one another’s companionship. Tell jokes, look at the sky, read a book and bask in the sun! This, friends, is a picnic par excellence!
At the core of this post, however, is an invitation to engage nature and the day with others. And that’s not easy in our indoor and insular culture. Christians in previous epochs would be shocked and saddened to learn that we didn’t spend much time marveling at God’s handiwork in nature around us, and that we didn’t find time to share an afternoon outside with others.
‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork’, signals the Psalmist. May we, too, make these words our own.