My friend needs picnic help. I am going to try to provide encouragement. I may fail, but no one will say I didn’t try.

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?

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The Pros and Cons of Picnics

The Hausfrau is, pretty much by definition, someone who wants to avoid the Great Outdoors. If I have to be near nature, it has to be under controlled circumstances, or there will be hell to pay: I become very unpleasant to be around, very quickly, if those needs are not met. One, there must be proper bathrooms within easy walking distance. Two, there are certain creature comforts that must be brought along for the duration. These include, but are not limited to: good food; appealing reading material; and something comfortable to sit on that separates my tush from nature. I don’t require sunscreen. I don’t require a tent (though maybe I should). I don’t see what’s so appealing about being uncomfortable, and it always seems to me that being outdoors equates to being uncomfortable. I have never gone on a hike, and I plan to keep it that way.

However, I have a child, and that child finds picnics delightful. So does her father. Over the years, as a result, we have developed a pretty solid system for picnicking. There are different versions of our picnics; we select which version we’re doing based on where we are going. And the quantity of preparation involved depends entirely on which type of picnic is anticipated, and how long we will be away from home.

The short, easy version of a picnic is what my daughter and I do when we have lunch in the courtyard of our apartment building. This is the most bare-bones picnic I do, which should alarm you. Supplies include:

Large, easily laundered blanket or tablecloth; cloth napkins; an entree; a crunchy snacky thing to have on the side (e.g. potato chips or similar); something light, juicy, and crunchy to eat, like sliced cucumbers or grape tomatoes; some cold fruit; beverages; some small sweet thing for dessert; reading material. The blanket is carried outside and spread out by my daughter while I stand holding a tray on which everything else is stacked. A picnic like this generally lasts about an hour, maybe 90 minutes if we decide to lie down on the picnic cloth and just read for a while after eating, or if my daughter decides to go look for praying mantises while I lie down and read. Cleanup is simple. Everything is stacked back onto the tray, and the blanket is rolled up, and things are carried back into the house.

A more involved version of this picnic is the setup we use when we go to the pool to spend a few hours. Depending on the time of day, we either need to bring lunch and snack with us, or snack and dinner. Either way, the above list is (minus the tray) packed into a large tote bag with some carefully arranged additions: the drinks might, for example, be packed into Ziploc bags containing ice. This keeps the beverages and everything else cold, which is important on a hot summer day, but keeps the entire enterprise still highly portable, which is also important because we take the bus. The two of us have to be able to carry all of our stuff comfortably for a distance equal to roughly two blocks. That’s not so far, but I can promise you that carrying a heavy cooler two blocks would be no fun. So: bigass tote bag, and bags of ice (which serve a dual purpose, because you can use the ice water, if you want to, to rinse hands, cool foreheads, or even drink, if it comes to that).

If my husband is joining into the picnic things will become even more elaborate, because then we usually have the luxury of being driven to the picnic location. If we are headed to a beach, then a beach umbrella is involved. Using a car means we can use the cooler and the tote bag, or even two coolers (one for food, one for drinks).  It means things are likely to get pretty elaborate.  Food that requires plates, forks, knives, food that will be cooked on-site on a grill. Ziploc bags of food will be prepped and sealed up for safe travel — marinated steak or chicken; sliced veggies on skewers; the various components for a salad to be assembled upon arrival. Salad dressing goes into an old spice jar or an old jam jar, depending on how much dressing is needed. All forks, knives, and spoons are packed into their own Ziploc bag, so they’re clean when we sit down to eat; and after we eat, when they’re dirty, they go back into the bag to be carried home for washing without getting other things all gunked up while in transit.

Often, it is necessary to have sharp knives with us when we are having this kind of picnic. Sharp knives require special packing effort. Because we are not professional chefs, we don’t have one of those snazzy rolls for safely toting knives around, but I’ve managed to come up with a fairly acceptable homemade system, which involves using dishtowels to wrap the knives up, and rubber bands to secure the little bundles. So long as only my husband and I unwrap them, it works fine (our daughter knows to not help unpack those items).

It is smart to bring a light plastic cutting board or two on a serious picnic. Something thick enough that you can safely use it on the ground, if you have to — not just one of those flexible plastic mats that seem so perfect for picnics because they’re so light and take up so little space. They’re also so light they’ll blow away in a strong breeze. Leave those at home and get something a little sturdier and pack it into the tote bag. If you’ve got a nice loaf of bread you want to slice to eat with the meal, you don’t want to cut it on the birshit-covered picnic table, do you? And after you’ve covered the birdshit covered picnic table with a cloth, you still don’t want to use the cloth as a cutting board. Bring a cutting board.

Cloth napkins are preferable to paper napkins because they’re also not so likely to blow away in the wind while you’re at table/on picnic blanket. That said, it is smart to bring along at least part of a roll of paper towels, because they can be really useful. Paper towels — which I almost never use at home — are the kind of thing that takes almost no effort to pack, and doesn’t seem like a big deal, and you think, “eh, it doesn’t matter, the napkins will be fine.” And if you leave them at home, everything is fine until you run into trouble (you need to clean up some big mess/want to drain something/want something disposable to rest a bacteria-laden object on) and don’t have anything appropriate.  And then you find yourself asking the air around you, “Does anyone have any paper towels?” So do yourself a favor and just pack some paper towels. If you don’t want to carry a whole roll, just tear off ten or so towels and pack them into something that will keep them clean, dry, and unrumpled. If you don’t use them on this jaunt, you can keep them safe for the next outing.

Stacks of paper plates are a good idea if you can’t have proper place settings. Some people have plastic dishes they use for picnics; I admire that but we don’t have any and I’ve yet to convince myself to invest in any, but am definitely not taking my proper plates to and fro for picnics. I know that it’s not environmentally friendly to use paper plates, but sometimes in life we make compromises. Mine is using the occasional small stack of paper plates. Sue me. Similarly, I don’t have a supply of plastic cups I reserve for picnics. We drink cans of seltzer or bottles of beer from the can or bottle, and call it a day. Wine drinkers; you’re on your own, I have no sage advice for you.

So you haul all this stuff to the place where you will be picnicking. If you’re going to cook, you set up your on-the-road mise en place. Someone mans the grill while someone else sets the table: tablecloth goes down first, whether it’s on the ground or on an actual table. Anchor the corners of the tablecloth with heavy-ish objects that everyone will need as the meal progresses — cans of seltzer, or bottles of condiments; the bag of cutlery can anchor one corner until the contents are pressed into use.

You set the table in such a way that it’s comfortable. You want everyone enjoying the meal to be able to enjoy the meal; no one should sit down to eat and not know where their napkin is, or where their fork is. Just because you’re eating outside, it doesn’t mean you have to live like animals. You don’t have to have dirt in your food. And you don’t need special gear, those fancy picnic basket sets (or not so fancy ones, even) that look so charming. Believe me, I think they look charming, too, but I’m convinced they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Most of us have what it takes to haul our stuff to a picnic without investing $30, let alone $150, on special picnic gear. You own serving spoons; bring a few with you so that you’ve got a way to serve your green salad and your fruit salad with different implements. You don’t want vinaigrette on your watermelon and blueberries, do you? No, you don’t. So just pack some spoons. Pack some tongs. If you’re going to do this, do it right.

Because — and this is crucial — I know it seems as though you’re preparing for Armageddon, when you’re packing up. But when you come back home, there won’t be as much stuff, because most of it will have been eaten. And then it’s just a matter of washing up. If you used paper plates, well, you threw those out already, right? It’s a matter of silverware and serving utensils, maybe a couple of trays, your cutting boards, the bowls you packed your salads in… it’s really not so bad. Now that we have a dishwasher, it’s pretty easy for me to just carry the tote bag of dirty stuff to the dishwasher and load the machine straight from the bag. Leftovers are already in bags or plastic tubs ready to go into the fridge. The tablecloth goes into the laundry with the napkins (and the beach towels and bathing suits that probably have to be laundered anyway). And if you never had to open your packet of paper towels, really, you’re ahead of the game for the next outing.

The really fun part of planning a picnic, as I learned from Laurie Colwin years ago, is the same thing that’s really fun about attending a picnic: the food. That is what I’ll talk about next: the food.