Smoke drifts from the mouths of several tandoors set up in Artesia Park for the annual Diwali Mela. This Hindu New Year Fair is one giant schmooze fest for the Indian community. Parents gossip, kids race around, people wander from booth to booth, where cooks turn out fragile dosas and hawk all sorts of curries. It's hot and the sun glints off the thousands of tiny jewels that decorate the women's diaphanous saris. Snapping firecrackers stir the emotions of the homesick. A flame billows into the air, burning in effigy the evil king Ravana, symbolizing that good will triumph over evil in the new year.
Welcome to Parks and Recreation L.A.-style, where on any weekend in any local park you may encounter the Peruvian-American Medical Association picnic, or the Seoul National College of Music Alumni barbecue, or the L.A. All-Japan Rugby Club.
Local parks used to be reserved for birthday parties, scout meetings and church socials. Picnics were made up of fried chicken and potato salad, or unevenly scorched hot dogs rescued from the grill and plunked into Wonder buns. But that was before half of L.A.'s residents were born outside the U.S. I got to thinking about this, not because I'm particularly plugged into Department of Parks and Recreation doings but because I was tracking down information for what seemed like an incredibly bland assignment: "picnics in L.A. parks."
Once I began talking to people about picnics and related activities in L.A., I found my finger moving toward the pulse of the city's populace. Even more than demographic statistics, more than watching Channel 18, listening to NPR or frequenting the club of the moment, a look into food-related outdoor festivities gave me a revealing picture of how Angelenos celebrate life.
One appetizing outcome of this diversity (and of the two-income family) is our city's improved selection of ready-to-eat foods, offered by enterprising entrepreneurs, that are usually better than supermarket offerings. Just about anything may be had, from whole roasted lamb and marinated pulgogi, to cheeses from obscure Portuguese villages in the Azores. So pack up the blanket, put the ice chest in the car, and follow your nose toward the smoke. It just might lead you into another land.
A discussion of Peruvian picnics, for instance, led me to the PNA - Peruvian Nikkei Association. A distinct offshoot of the Peruvian community, this group is made up solely of Peruvians with Japanese ancestry (Nobu Matsuhisa may even be a member). Teresa Nakasone, owner of the restaurant Pollos Tumis, explains that one need be only a fraction Japanese to be Nikkei. For the past few years, the PNA has gathered on Mother's Day at Santa Fe Dam in San Dimas. The picnic is a huge family affair and potluck, to which everyone brings food and a donation for the poor. The menu, says Nakasone's daughter Nicki, is pretty straightforward Peruvian, with items like papas huancainas, chicken and rice, and anticuchos grilled over coals.
The common bond among the dozen or so Southern California Peruvian clubs and social groups is the Kermess, an outdoor, carnival-like, all-day eating and entertainment festival organized to raise money for a good cause. Last January, in Balboa Park near Sherman Oaks, the Association of Peruvian Clubs threw a Kermess to raise aid for the devastated area of Piura, in northern Peru, which was almost wiped out by severe El Nino rains.
"Kids just love a Kermess," said Willie Veliz of Amazonas Natural Foods, a wholesale importing company. There's something for every taste. Club members team up for impromptu soccer tournaments. A loud voice over the microphone constantly booms out new chances to win another raffle - stuff donated by local businesses and services, and trips to Peru from the airlines. Clowns and Inkaqena musicians share the stage. There is folkloric dancing and a DJ who spins more-contemporary dance music. Restaurants donate time and food; money from sales goes to the cause. In this case tons of clothing were collected to send to Peru. "That's the main thing," Veliz mused. "It makes you feel good you can do something to help, even though you have to stay here and work."
The fat chickens revolving in Pollos Tumis' rotisserie just beg to be taken on a picnic. These juicy, lemon-spiced birds taste fabulous, hot or cold. But there's more to this Peruvian cafe than pollos. Carry away some of the excellent ceviche, papa a la huancaina (instead of the usual potato salad), the terrific Peruvian-style tamales, or the rice-and-bean stew (seco con frejoles y arroz). Giant roasted corn kernels, called canchas, make a change from pedestrian chips. Open Mon.-Sat. noon-8 p.m., Sun. noon-7 p.m. 5870 Melrose Ave.; (323) 962-2027.
In a city that makes it easy to lose a sense of identity, it's refreshing to witness a community that still fosters a strong connectedness to traditions. Artesia, better known as the home of Little India, is also the heart of a tight-knit Portuguese enclave that makes a ritual of keeping its customs alive. Artesia's Portuguese use Mayfair Park in nearby Lakewood or Cerritos Regional County Park for family gatherings or sports tournaments. But the community's most extravagant celebration of the year, the Festa do Espiritu Santo, moves through the city streets between the Portuguese Community Hall - known as Artesia DES, on Ashworth Street - and Holy Family Catholic Church on Clarkdale Avenue.
A vacada, or amateur bullfight, kicks off the four-day-long festival season. "It's like the running of the bulls," explains Paul Barcelos, one of the hall's directing officers. Bloodless bullfights, at which the bull is "stabbed" with a Velcro-tipped banderilla, are part of the festival ceremonies. There's a bullfighting ring at the rear of the Community Hall complex.
The hall's several buildings are centered on a large, graceful, Iberian-style courtyard. A public bar and mini-cafe in one of the buildings, is where older Portuguese men come to socialize during the week. Throughout the festival the bar serves Portuguese ports, Portuguese brandy, soft drinks, and snacks that include linguica sandwiches.
The re-enactment of the medieval festa is a ceremony that has lingered in the Azores Islands (the whole village is invited), where most of Artesia's Portuguese are from. This year, the festa - a flurry of dances, processions, cultural rituals, religious observances and the a serving of symbolic foods, all rolled into one event - begins on July 24. Marching bands from various other DES halls come to town. Friday night, a procession of last year's queen and her princesses moves through the streets. Their arrival is followed by serving traditional sweet bread, masa sovada, to everyone present. Next, the older men present the Portuguese equivalent of rap - cantorias, or folk stories, made up on the spot and sung in rhyme for as much as an hour at a time.
Sopes is the meal most Portuguese await with anticipation all year long. It's served on Sunday after Mass, when all the school kids - dressed as queens, princes and princesses - parade from the church to the hall, accompanied by a throng of visiting marching bands. At least 700 people will crowd into the courtyard on Sunday, the third day of the festa. Working in the hall's massive kitchens, volunteers cook vats of specially cured meat, along with hundreds of pounds of cabbage. Broth will be poured over dry bread in huge bowls, then topped with the stewed meat, cabbage and sprigs of fresh mint. The food is served family-style on enormously long paper-covered tables. Folks take their plates to the central courtyard, or eat with 600 other hungry people in the hall. Like me, more and more of them aren't Portuguese at all.
The requisite ingredients for Portuguese-style picnics can be found at Portazil Pastry. Consider linguica, the corpulent, slightly sweet Portuguese sausage (Portazil stocks six different brands), and whole fresh-frozen sardines grilled over live coals and brushed with hot malagueta pepper-infused butter - eat them with potatoes baked in the coals. Other possibilities for al fresco meals include presunto, Portuguese-style cured ham similar to prosciutto; and a good selection of cheeses from the Azores and the mainland for eating with the fresh rolls made right here. The bakery also turns out homemade Portuguese sweet bread and yeast-risen cornbread. Don't pass up the queijavas - fine little pastry cups with such fillings as ground-almond custard, orange custard, caramel and coconut. There's also a great selection of olives and pickled peppers. Open Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-6 p.m. 18159 Pioneer Blvd. (at 183rd St.), Artesia; (562) 865-1141.
Many large cultural celebrations have developed a growing following outside their immediate ethnicity. One such event, the Los Angeles African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, attracts such huge crowds it has expanded to a three-weekend stretch from the two days with which it originally started. The Rancho Cienega Park location (323-734-1164) will, on three weekends, August 22 through September 7, be transformed into an African village, replete with thatched huts to serve as booths for arts and crafts.
The gaiety generated by the boinky trill of West Indian steel drums alternates with music that runs the gamut from Senegalese mbalay to reggae. The crowd is just as mixed as the foods they are sampling: Ghanaian-style jolof "rice and do do," a puffy African-style falafel of ground black-eyed peas, shares the walkabout menu with the hybrid Afro-Caribbean specialties such as conch fritters, jerk pork, collard greens and barbecue.
In Greek, the word for visitor, Xenos, doubles as the word for stranger - a revealing clue to the success of Greek hospitality, and possibly why many non-Greeks who frequent their festivals feel so immediately at home. Southern California's large and well-established Greek community puts on many festivals each year, many of them outdoors in parks. "There's a Greek festival circuit," explains Akrevoe Emmanouilides, who is already baking and freezing Greek breads for the St. Katherine's Church Festival in October in Redondo Beach. "Many non-Greeks go from festival to festival," she continues. "They love Greek food and the dancing."
The festivals aren't just stamped-out duplicates of one another. Various locations - St. Anthony's festival at Santa Anita Racetrack, St. Constantine and Helen's at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds - give a different feel to each. The Long Beach festival, set by a lagoon, reminds many of being on a Greek island. Amplified bazoukia music throbs, backing up exhibition dancers who wear stunningly crafted regional costumes. And Greek dancing lessons coax almost everyone from their seats.
Church members go all out for their festivals, throwing themselves into the food preparation weeks in advance: making dolmas, spanakopitas, gyros, meat and souvlaki. A published yearly schedule lists 19 festivals in Southern California; most events run through an entire weekend. For a calendar, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Greek Festival Schedule, 3608 Country Club Dr., Long Beach, CA 90807-3826.
To assemble a Greek-inspired picnic on your own, Golden Grains Greek Deli and Bakery is one of those places that makes you ask yourself: Why cook anything? Ele Fteria, Golden Grains' owner, will hover over the stove for you, producing an incredibly long and bounteous menu - every item a winner. Her style could be called neo-Greek; it's lighter and more inventive than that at your basic neighborhood gyros shop. Stuffed tomatoes, pastitsio, moussaka, dolmades, and dozens of fabulous pita- and lavash-based sandwiches: roast lamb, red roasted pepper . . . Open a Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. 102 Via Valencia, Redondo Beach; (310) 375-0880.
Even if you aren't up to roasting one of the whole lambs that C & K Importing stocks - even if you don't cook at all - this old-time Greek deli can see you through a hundred grassy picnics. Basic staples: half a dozen olive varieties, sheep's-milk feta, frozen cheese, and spinach filo pastries to bake easily at home. Next door, in the cafe, juicy, garlicky chickens turn on a spit, gyros and kebabs make up the sandwiches - or can be served without bread on a dinner plate with lemony Greek potatoes and salad. Back in the shop, peruse the phylo desserts and Greek-style cookies that taste so good with strong, chewy coffee. Open Tues.-Sat. 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. 2771 W. Pico Blvd.; (323) 737-2970.
Almost every Saturday and Sunday at Woodley Avenue Park in Van Nuys, a proper English cricket game is played in all its customary slow-motion elegance by the Century Sports Club, a group of men from Sri Lanka. Watching them dressed in their whites is like meandering into a Merchant-Ivory film - you half expect Helena Bonham-Carter to drift across the lawn.
A cricket match is one of those languorous all-day affairs, so of course the men have time to stop for tea - and such savory snacks as sausage rolls, godamba (curry-stuffed bread), naan bread, Sri Lankan hot sambol, seeni sambol (a peppery hot onion relish in a bun) and string hoppers to eat with canned curries from Sri Lanka, all sold at Sri Lankan Delight. Open Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. 19016 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; (818) 774-1237.
A different mood prevails at Korean Soccer Club tournaments. Koreans have caught soccer mania with a vengeance, and they've formed teams for every age group in various regions around the city. For the league playoffs and other "important" holidays, Koreans organize barbecue picnics - potluck affairs with team members each bringing a separate part of the meal. They barbecue kalbi (marinated beef ribs) and pulgogi (marinated, thinly sliced meat) and possibly a whole fish. Appointed members bring along rice cookers filled with cooked rice; others bring stacks of washed lettuce leaves to use for wrapping up pieces of meat and rice, burrito fashion. Still others bring panchan, those intensely flavored vegetable side dishes that can be almost anything from black soybeans cooked in sugar to chili peppers in hot chile sauce. (Some panchan cooks gain reputations for certain dishes, just as someone might have a pie or chicken recipe everyone loves.)
Such meals are "actually a departure from the traditional Korean picnic," says Torrance resident Seung-Hae Song, because in Korea meat is much more expensive and recreational outdoor grilling facilities are scarce. Traditional Korean picnics were always packed into a dosirak, a sort of bento box divided into compartments (available at Kim's Appliances, 2940 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown; 213-386-4882). Large portions of rice come with many small portions of flavored vegetables, or small dollops of dried or pickled fish, to give the rice flavor. One lunch-box favorite, kim bap - which is easy to find in L.A. Korean markets - looks like a sushi roll with nori on the outside. But instead of fish, the filling is matchstick-cut beef (or tofu or egg). Kim bap has the same appeal in Korea as the hot dog does here.
Koreans tend to appreciate the well-tended public spaces here. "In Korea, public parks don't have free areas with charcoal grills and soccer fields," Bum-Shon, of the L.A. Bong Hwa Korean Soccer Association, says enthusiastically. His group uses any holiday as an excuse to put on a giant picnic and barbecue. Upcoming is Korean Liberation Day, August 15, at Cerritos Regional County Park, commemorating the formation of the Korean republic in 1948. Last year, on March 1, the Korean Times sponsored Samiljol, celebrating the independence movement against Japanese colonial rule by erecting huge, white, tentlike structures to shade tables as the eating and games continued throughout the day. Similar events are usually sponsored by churches, or by the more than 200 Korean university and high school alumni associations in L.A.
Go straight to the deli case with the curved windows at Koreatown Plaza Market for a full picnic spread: ready-to-cook marinated beef ribs and the thinner-cut pulgogi; dozens of hot and mild vegetable side dishes; a whole world of kimchees. Try the fast-food court in the mall outside the market for Korean sushi (kim bap) and other picnic snacks. Open Sun.-Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. 928 S. Western Ave., No. 100; (213) 385-1100.
Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades and Burton W. Chace Park in Marina del Rey draw Persian picnickers almost any time the weather's fine. It's charming to see the older generation coming to a picnic on the grass in formal wear - men in dark suits, and the women wearing dresses, scarves and stockings, even in the heat of summer. A cloth is spread on the lawn or table, and there's likely to be a ceramic vase holding a bouquet of fresh flowers. Meals aren't opulent, but rice cookers are in evidence and kebabs sizzle on the park barbecues. a
With Persians, almost anything travels to a picnic, and eating it at room temperature is acceptable. The best Persian takeout on the Westside can be found at Kabob Korner. Good bets: shirazi salad of diced tomato and cucumber; Kashk-Badenjan, a rich, smooth, roasted eggplant dip; cornish hen kabob; chicken breast salad; and many vegetable wrap sandwiches. Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. 12201 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 826-4347.
The babushkas always gather at Plummer Park in West Hollywood where, on Monday, a modest farmers market takes place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Loaded down with white plastic bags of fruits and vegetables, the old women often sit in the warm sun with friends to play a little mahjong, or snack on a beet salad and some herring from Tatiana, a Fairfax-area deli that carries a fine selection of smoked fish, mushroom salad and sweet red peppers. Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. till 8 p.m. 8205 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 656-7500.
Restaurants are the venue of choice for most Russian festivities, according to Boris Mikelson, proprietor of Tbilisi Russian and Georgian Restaurant in Encino. But there's at least one important exception, the CSP-Soul events at the Falcon Group campgrounds above Lake Elsinore. Attendees supply their own picnic lunches, which can be purchased ready-made at Russian delis. Each year, Russian authors, lyricists and musicians from all over the U.S. who have written songs gather to entertain one another and a general audience. The CSP-Soul group is an offshoot of the highly regarded association Author's Songs, that is in Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries. Information on past events is on the Internet at www.csp-soul.lk.net. Future dates will be posted after August.
For an opulent Russian picnic selection, I recommend Helati European Deli. There are at least 20 types of eggplant salads, a panorama of smoked fish including hot and cold smoked sturgeon and herring, a broad selection of cured meats (try the Hungarian smoked pork loin), and excellent cheeses - manouri and smoked mozzarella. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m. 1800 Ventura Blvd., No. 1, Encino. (818) 996-3718.
To get the lowdown on Thai community goings on, I check in with Patty and Peter Konenakeaw of Thai Ranch Restaurant in Westlake Village. What came out of our always interesting conversations was the revelation that Southern California has a Thai Tennis Association. The group director, Aroon Seeboonruang, a former tennis pro who now tutors aspiring young Thai tennis champions, presides over the tournament and picnic at Brookside Park near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
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Another of the dozen or so Thai associations in the L.A. area, the Chulalongkorn University Alumni Association, throws an informal potluck and barbecue for about 200 of its members and guests each year at Garvey Ranch Park in Monterey Park. (You can read about the Association on its Web site at www.chula.ac.th.) Usually, the menu centers on kai-yang, fabulous Thai-style barbecued chicken with its accompanying sweet and viscous garlic-laden dipping sauce. Members bring assorted side dishes that almost always include shredded green papaya salad, cool but still incendiary, and si krog, that smelly, garlicky sausage with a rapacious pungency, to eat Esaan style with fried peanuts and raw vegetables.
Between park events or on special holidays, Thais spend time socializing at a Thai temple complex, or wat. Wat Buddhi Chino Hills, with its seven and a half acres of grassy parkland, provides open-sided picnic tents and outdoor barbecues for visitors who, as custom dictates, donate a small portion of their food to the monks. Each November, on the night of the full moon, devotees celebrate Loy Krathong. The custom in Thailand is to float a small boat holding a candle and incense on a canal or river to honor the water spirits. The disappearing boat is said to float away the owner's sins as the lunar year begins again. Wat Buddhi Chino has no river. Instead, according to monk Charlie Noi, the monks improvise a shallow lake. The wat and its grounds draw Thais from all over Southern California, but anyone is welcome, just as they are at Wat Thai of Los Angeles.
Almost every weekend, Wat Thai's lower floor turns into a pulsating Bangkok-style street scene where vendors sell the beloved foods that are so much a part of Thai urban life. Specialties perfected over the years include tiny kanom, intricate and delicate sweet or salty snacks rarely found in restaurants. In season, everyone's favorite, sticky rice drizzled with warm sweet coconut milk, comes topped with slices of limpid, ultra-ripe mango. People wander up the sunny courtyard to polish off their choices.
Khun Dang Thai Restaurant cooks Thai food for Thais, and serves specific foods that Thais love to take on picnics. There's excellent Esaan-style barbecued chicken (gai yang), larb, spicy green papaya salad, dried beef salad, and noodle dishes. Open Fri.-Wed. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., closed Thurs. 13436 Sherman Way, North Hollywood; (818) 503-4993.