A number of my associates — and I myself, I have to admit, I am not exempt from this bourgeois shit — spend time in the summer at a local pool club which has what we might call a certain rustic charm. It’s bourgeois, to be sure, but as pool clubs go, it is rather… unintimidating. It’s not a place with a fancy restaurant attached to it where you call a staffer over and they bring you an iced tea and maybe a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo. It’s the kind of place where there’s a Coleman cooler of ice water over near the gate and a stack of paper cones to drink out of. There is a snack shack, and that means you can spend five bucks on a cheeseburger if you want to. You can also buy what are politely called “ice cream novelties.” If you want to.
As a rule, I don’t want to.
This has meant that I’ve developed a keen sense of what can be toted to the pool to have for picnic lunches and/or dinners. It’s not merely that I’m stingy, though I am; it’s that if I’m going to spend money on stuff like this, I want it to be genuinely good. And I mean no disrespect to the snack shack really: it’s not like they’ve got a real kitchen to work with. It’s a tough gig. But I’d just as soon bring my own food. Okay?
Admittedly: Not all of my friends share this keen sense. What’s more, many of my friends are, in addition to trying to feed themselves and their families, under what we’ll call gently trying circumstances (because you’ve got to schlep your food, and probably have it already cooked — not everyone wants to grill, believe it or not), facing the basic challenge of parenthood, which is: what the fuck to feed the children, whose palates are not exactly ranked with Jacques Pepin’s. Because man cannot live on SpongeBob SquarePants pops. Believe it or not.
So there’s the “nutritious” dining issue, and the “not hideously expensive” dining issue, combined with the “bring a picnic” issue. It’s rather daunting. Then to really up the ante, one of my friends confessed to me recently that she is extremely averse, herself, to the idea of eating sandwiches for dinner. She is not a fan of sandwiches for dinner. Personally I don’t know how that’s possible, but we’ll let that go and just accept the premise: No Sandwiches For Dinner.
So what can one serve at a picnic, for dinner, that isn’t sandwiches and doesn’t require cooking on-site on the grill? Whether or not they appeal to one’s children is another matter entirely, and one I will address shortly.
There are a thousand great things you can eat at a picnic. They taste especially great if you’ve been out in the sun and swimming and stuff like that for a few hours: your appetite is huge. There is a catch, though: they require you to have put effort into the matter before you left the house. It may take you as long as an hour to set up the picnic at home — and I realize most people don’t want to do that. However, the benefits are tangible once you’re sitting down at your picnic table.
OK, you do hypothetically have other options. You could go to the nice place near your apartment that sells takeout, and buy takeout. You could buy a pound of healthful, delicious grilled vegetables and maybe some seaweed salad and a bag of horseradish potato chips. That’s your prerogative. They’ll even give you little plastic forks and napkins and stuff. Cram the takeout containers into your tote bags, remember to bring a drink, you’re good.
But what if you don’t want to pay $10.99/lb for pasta salad and fruit salad and seaweed salad and grilled veggies, and you’re not willing to slap some PB&J on bread and call it dinner? Then you’re going to have to face an ugly truth, which is this: A good homemade picnic requires some effort.
In July of 2008, the New York Times did a big, multi-page spread, by Mark Bittman, listing things you could bring on a picnic. It’s a pretty good list, generally speaking. I actually tore the pages out of the paper and folded them up and shoved them into one of my Bittman cookbooks, for quick reference. I’ve got it around here someplace.
The thing about the Bittman List is, a lot of it is stuff you’d be eating were you making dinner at home anyhow — at least, this is true in my household. Panzanella is a standard summertime evening meal for us, because it uses up stale bread, tomatoes are at their best in the summer, and it’s easy to make. Bittman doesn’t like calling things pasta salads, but I don’t share this phobia, and so I’m willing to accept that there are a ton of sauced pasta dishes that are just as good room temperature or cold as they are hot, and I’m happy to eat them as pasta salads. (In other words, remember that pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad gloppy stuff, it can be happy, non-gloppy stuff; and it can even be happy and gloppy, if you’ve made a sauce that has, say, excellent ricotta whipped into the dressing.) (Be sure to take care with keeping these kinds of things cool — you do not want to give yourself food poisoning. In other words, pasta with tuna packed in olive oil, red onion, garlic, parsley, and white beans is one of the best things in the world to eat on a hot summer evening — but it won’t seem like such a great idea if your tub of this has been sitting around in the hot sun for five hours before you eat it and hence has turned into a festering tub of I don’t know what. You have to pack your picnic with a serious attention to the biohazard detail. So maybe skip the tuna and the white beans. But feel free to go for olives, capers, red onion, garlic, and parsley: these are things that can take a bit of a beating.)
Rice salads are also great for picnics. The same theories behind pasta salads hold for rice salads. However, cooking rice for rice salads is a little different from cooking rice to serve alongside a hot dish. If you’re planning a rice salad, cook the rice as you would pasta: fill a stock pot with water, bring to boil, and cook the rice in the boiling water for about 11 minutes. Drain through a colander and then — this is important — dump the rice out on a cooky sheet and let it cool for about 20 minutes before you dress it. Rice salad can be set up a thousand ways. Dice up any leftover vegetables you have on hand (the six cherry tomatoes in a bowl, the half a can of olives in the back of the fridge, the last four tablespoons of salsa in the jar, a stalk of celery, the leftover steamed broccoli), toss with oil and vinegar. This is rice salad. It can be made heftier if you add some protein (leftover diced chicken, beef, or whatever). It’s often nice to toss with some grated Parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like. All of this is a matter of taste. If you like parsley add parsley; if you don’t, don’t. My child believes no salad is really correct without capers. So I add capers.
I like to have a picnic involve more than one thing. I will raid the fridge to see what I can come up with. Things I wouldn’t do normally, like slice up some celery sticks to munch on, plain, I will do in the name of a good picnic. Prep the celery and pack it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel (this rule also holds for carrot sticks). The last time I assembled a picnic, I was rummaging through the fridge and found a jar of pickled okra in the back — so I took a little Rubbermaid tub and filled it with okra, some black olives, some green olives, and cherry tomatoes. It made a nice little side dish, gave the meal a little variety.
My patron saint, Laurie Colwin, wrote an essay on picnics (in More Home Cooking) that made me realize that even I could deal with a picnic, it was just that I’d been thinking about them all wrong. And that dealing with a picnic didn’t have to mean special picnic-specific food; it meant adapting what I’d normally eat into a portable format. This is the key. What is it you normally eat? Figure out a way to carry that to your picnic spot. If the specific dish is not going to be portable in a reasonable way, figure out a variant form of it. Be willing to strike some compromises. Be willing to have things be a little off-kilter.
Your picnic can be bread, cheese — a cheese you want to be a little soft, like brie, can be perfect picnic food — some pickles, and fruit. This would involve buying a loaf of bread you like, buying cheese you like, snagging a jar of cornichons, and getting a bag of grapes or whatever looks good at the store. Your picnic can be a Fakes Elotes Salad (one of my own summer favorites) and a bag of potato chips and a pile of celery stalks. Your picnic can be a watermelon and feta salad, some slices of chicken breast slathered with fig jam on a baguette, and a little dish of olives. Your picnic can be cold leftover ears of corn on the cob, a bowl of cherry tomatoes with a thick salad dressing to dip them in, or maybe some pimiento cheese, and an avocado smashed onto slices of bread. Your picnic can be green pea salad and a few slices of ciabatta smeared with jam and layered with a sharp cheese. (It’s good, if you get the jam and cheese flavors right.) For God’s sake: leftover pizza, cold cooked veggies with a salad dressing to dip them in, and a cold drink — that’s a picnic! Don’t worry about dessert if you don’t want to. Buy some Oreo cookies for dessert, or break down and buy an ice cream sandwich at the snack shack. Whatever. I’m telling you: this doesn’t have to be hard. It just requires some forethought.
“But I’m no good at the forethought,” I can hear my friend wailing. But here’s the thing: I know she’s wrong. She is good at the forethought. She just doesn’t want to apply the forethought to food she herself will eat. To which my reply is: Why should you, my friend, have to suffer through a mediocre meal just because you’re not at home, but are, instead, three miles away from home at a club that has picnic tables and coolers of water waiting for you? You are worth the effort. A good picnic dinner is worth the effort. If you didn’t think so, you’d be picking up a burger at the Dairy Queen on your way home and calling it a night.
As for What Will The Children Eat: my solution to that is, when you’re cooking for the children at home, cook extra — a lot extra — and pack it into bags or tubs for the kids to eat later. If they’ll eat roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli, then make two extra sweet potatoes and cook another head of broccoli to tote for lunch the next day. If the only protein they will eat is Swiss cheese, buy extra Swiss cheese and cut it up, wrap it up in wax paper or whatever, and put it in the cooler. Only you, the parent, know how to cater to your little one, so I leave that to you. It’s merely a matter of having extra on hand. If, on the other hand, the kid is a not-picky eater, then they’ll just join in with whatever you’re having, and life is a bowl of cherries. (Cherries are, by the way, excellent picnic food; pack them into a bag or a bowl with ice cubes, because sun-heated cherries make for a sad dining experience.)
The grownup picnic should be a genuinely enjoyable meal. I mean, despite the bugs, despite the sunburn, despite the fact that you feel a distinct need to wash your hair because the chlorine is eating at your scalp. A picnic meal shouldn’t mean lowering your standards; it just means altering your system. And if you’re the kind of parent who’s been dutifully lugging water bottles and the right kind of crackers for the last six years, to keep your child cool, calm, and collected, I know you can do it.
The last good thing about a picnic is this: if you’ve done it right, you will find that you come home with far less stuff than you came with. The paper plates go in the trash. Yes, you’ll have some Rubbermaid tubs to wash, some cutlery, things like that — but the bag that seemed so heavy as you left the house will weigh a fraction of what it weighed when you walked out the door. You can empty out the cooler and the tote bags as the kids go clean themselves up and put on pajamas and brush their teeth. And you can fall into bed feeling like you ate a good meal and that you’ve earned your exhaustion honestly.
Then the next day, you get to do it all again! Ain’t summertime grand?