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Splendor in the Grass 

. . . and on the sand and in the canyons. The lost art of picnicking

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
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PICNICS ARE TINY HOLIDAYS, A WEEK IN THE country condensed into hours. Even the simplest picnic can lift us out of our daily life, plop us down under some splendid shade tree, stir our senses, and send us home renewed. But they are something of a lost art. On a recent binge of picnicking, I saw countless tables languishing unused in the loveliest public places. Where are the families, the lovers, the packs of friends to fill them? I myself hadn't been on so many picnics in years -- nor had the friends I hauled along with me. Picnics had slid off our radar. "I thought I needed a proper basket first," said one person. Indeed, picnics have been so merchandised, we think we can't embark on one without acrylic stemware. Yet my friend and I were surprised at how easy -- and spontaneous -- these outings could be. And we'd forgotten, too, the many pleasures of the act: the easy summer-camp camaraderie, the beauty of older public parklands, the fact that food simply tastes better outdoors.

Of course, something always goes wrong on a picnic -- a plan goes awry, the dog eats the ham, a knee is skinned -- but this is the charm, and the essential stuff of memory. Once, in the Sierras on a granite dome perched high over a valley, our watermelon rolled off -- and I'll never forget it wobbling out of sight. I remember one picnic, when I was in high school, where (thanks to an illegal herb) the trees in Lacey Park pulsed and glowed. During graduate school in Iowa, we once had a picnic composed entirely of pilfered field corn grilled over a wood fire by a man-made lake. (There's a week or so when the huge ears are sweet and edible, before they progress into animal feed.) I remember a picnic in Laguna, not so long ago, when a sea gull snatched a ham sandwich right out of my friend Steve's hand. He did not find this funny.

A QUICKIE AT THE BEACH

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Two girlfriends and I are on a shopping trip in Santa Monica to hit the summer sales and then have lunch on the beach. It is in the high 90s inland, but still cool near the Pacific. We shop, buy any number of dresses, skirts, sweaters and shirts. Then the ocean, peeping out at us at the end of the avenues, beckons. There is some discussion about where to procure our picnic. One of us wants Cha Cha Chicken; another wants sandwiches and cookies from Massimo's, a newish little café/patisserie on Abbot Kinney. The sandwiches are made there on an Italian sandwich press, which has a way of intensifying the flavors and forcing them into every inch of the bread. (I recommend the chicken with pesto and mushrooms.)

Frankly, it's kind of a pain in the ass to eat at the beach: all that sand, and the way bags and wrappers take to the air like naughty spirits, wafting just out of reach. Then again, everything's so bright and vivid: the way the sun glints through the bottle of fennel and lemon-flavored green olives, the sparkling mist above the waves, the way my friends' blue eyes look bluer, almost turquoise, in this light. Minutes ago we were shameless materialistic consumers; here we're flagrant pagan nymphs, wallowing in the sand, hiking up our skirts to sun our thighs, eating spicy-sauced chicken with our fingers, swilling water from the bottle. And how good are Massimo's cookies -- especially the little ones studded with pine nuts or the crisp, lemon-suffused madeleines. We eat them and wade in the ocean. The water is darn cold, and stings, as if carbonated. Here we are. At the edge of the earth. With our mouths full of sweetness.

The place: The beach, Santa Monica. Also suggested: Palisades Park, along Ocean Avenue.

Suggested food sources: Broadway Deli, 1457 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 451-0616. (Sandwiches, bread, deli foods, cold cuts, wine, baked goods.) Cha Cha Chicken, 1906 Ocean Ave., ä12 Santa Monica, (310) 581-1684. (Jerked chicken.) Cora's Coffee Shop, 1802 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 451-9562. (To-go sandwiches, frittata, salads.) Bay Cities Italian Bakery, 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-8279. (Cold cuts, bread, olives, submarine sandwiches.) Le Pain Quotidien, 11702 Barrington Court, Brentwood, (310) 476-0969. (Bread, olives, pastries, cookies.) Le Marmiton, 1327 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 393-7716. (Quiche, salads, charcuterie.) Massimo's Delectables, 1029 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 581-2485. (Sandwiches, cookies, bread, baked goods.) Rosti, 908 S. Barrington Ave., Brentwood, (310) 447-8695; 931 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 393-3236. (Sandwiches, roasted chicken.)

AMIDST THE PINES

We agree to meet and park our various cars at the La Cañada Sports Chalet -- a mistake, because people immediately think of sports items they have to pick up, and getting everyone out of the big store is like herding cats. Finally, the four of us climb into our vintage Mercedes and drive north on Angeles Crest Highway. It's late on a hot, scratchy afternoon. A good day to get out of town. The road, that kinky, well-crowned motorcycle course, climbs out of the woolly brown air and into the chaparral. I'm always amazed at how quickly the L.A. basin recedes on this road. Soon enough, we're on a two-lane blacktop in sage-covered hills, the sky an unblemished blue overhead. A roadside sign lets us know that we can't park anywhere in this forest unless we have a Wilderness Adventure Pass. We don't. We haven't been out for a Wilderness Adventure in so long, we forgot all about paying the $30 for permission. We probably could've bought one at Sports Chalet, but it's too late now. We'll take our chances. The drive to Charlton Flats has never seemed so long, but despite intimations of carsickness from the back seat, we press on. The promise of higher elevations with pine trees and cool air will be worth it.

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