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
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.
When we arrive, there are no people in sight — just pine trees and dry blond grass in a vast, hilly picnic area. The sign says the gate closes at 6, but it's already past 7 and it's still open. Few cars are left, and we have the whole place to ourselves, so we pick a prime spot, a table on a rise beside two tall trees. Ravens the size of chickens caw down at us. Squirrels gibber and scold. I set a bag down on the table, and what squirts out of it onto the dirt, like some surprise weird birth, is a beautiful lacquery-brown Zankou chicken. (The bag, we discover, was open on both ends — a trick bag, a bag designed to squirt a chicken right out onto the dirt.) We fish it out. We wipe it off. We bathe it in Evian. There goes most of that beautiful sticky-caramelized lemony skin. We are four good sports with sad faces. But then everything gets better. The shawarma, also from Zankou, long-marinated, crisp squiggles of flame-roasted meat, comes with a smooth tahini sauce. Out come the Lebanese Armenian hors d'oeuvres, cold mezze from Carousel, tabbouleh, hummus, grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, lebne with pickled jalapeño and tomatoes.
“What exactly is this?” someone asks of the muhammara. Red peppers, we answer, pomegranate syrup and walnuts. Muhammara, we add, means red-red-red in Arabic. And this dip is a luscious, deep, fiery magenta-orange-scarlet-red that's tart and sweet and rich and impossible not to keep eating.
The green-needled pine trees are awash in the slanting orange light of the plunging sun. There's a warm, dusty pine scent in the air. It's quiet but for the sound of people chewing. The chicken is still tasty, even if you hit a bit of grit now and then. Someone says this is the best part of camping — the pleasure without the stubbed toes and lost tent stakes and burnt marshmallows. I look around and ä23 see we're a picture of contentment. Call it Mezze in the pines. Zankou in the dirt. Sunset with lebne. Wilderness Adventure, the Misdemeanor.
The place: Charlton/Chilao Flats, Chilao Station, Angeles Crest Hwy., (626) 796-2832.
Suggested food sources: Carousel Restaurant, 304 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 246-7775. (Cold mezze.) Raffi's Place, 211 E. Broadway, Glendale, (818) 240-7411. (Kebabs to go.) Mario's Italian Market, 740 E. Broadway, Glendale, (818) 242-2301. (Submarine sandwiches, cold cuts, crusty bread, olives, cheese.) Porto's Bakery, 315 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5996. (Pork sandwiches, pastries, cookies.) Zankou Chicken, 1415 E. Colorado St., Glendale, (818) 244-1937. (Chicken shawarma.)
IN THE CANYON
Finding my friends takes an hour. Franklin Canyon, like other great parks, is a confusing place — a narrow arroyo with a small lake, an educational center, hiking trails, many nooks and crannies for picnicking. (Cell phones, of course, don't work in the canyon, or we might've found each other much sooner.)
As it turns out, they've gathered down the Franklin Canyon road in a large field of grass with well-placed venerable old sycamores and heavy wooden picnic tables. By the parking lot, a stand of jacarandas is in full purple bloom beside banks of orange day lilies. There's a garden of ancient cacti. The place is rustic, genteel — a garden spot surrounded by oak woods and chaparral-covered hills — it's almost impossible to grasp that we are smack in the middle of Beverly Hills.
Almost no one else is here: just a family on a blanket in one quadrant of the field, a pair of lovers way over by the woods, and a mean little boy and his mother and grandmother wandering nearby. Mary brought an old Pendleton blanket for a tablecloth, along with a potted hydrangea for the table decoration, and real crystal for the sparkling water. We have small amounts of many things to eat — cheeses from the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills (aged goat's, cow's-milk, Etorki, and an Etivaz from Switzerland), deli food from Nate-N-Al's (satiny sable and nova, brisket and rare roast beef, half-dill pickles), cookies from Il Fornaio. But the biggest hit is a jar of Nate-N-Al's fiery freshly ground horseradish for the brisket and roast beef. Out in the sunny pasture in the sweet shade of thick-trunked sycamores, every taste leaps on the tongue.
After lunch, some of us nap on blankets. Some play catch. Some chase after our two dogs, who, dragging leashes, visit the family and the lovers, and attempt to make friends with the mean little boy, who tries to hit them. (When Mary made nice to befriend the little boy, he tried to hit her, too.) Soon we regretfully climb out of the canyon, the time warp, and back into cell-phone range.
The place: Franklin Canyon Park, 2600 Franklin Canyon Drive, Beverly Hills.
Suggested food sources: Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 552-1080. (Sandwiches, deli salads, cookies, pastries.) Il Fornaio, 301 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 550-8330. (Baked goods.) Il Tramezzino, 460 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 273-0501. (Sandwiches.) Nate-N-Al Delicatessen & Restaurant, 414 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-0101. (Deli meats, pickles, salads, rye bread, horseradish.) Porta Via, 424 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6534. (Sandwiches, cookies.)
AMONG THE HAVES
The Huntington Gardens would be the best place in Southern California for a picnic — if picnics were allowed there. They aren't, for understandable reasons (crowds, trash, already-obese ducks). But south of the Gardens is the next best place: Lacey Park, which exudes lush, anachronistic charm. It's like the grounds of some vast estate — one might expect to find women in Victorian dress-bustles and plumed hats walking their lapdogs, or gentlemen on horseback.
Late afternoon in early summer, Lacey Park is a study in robust Americana: There's a ball game on the diamond; families picnic at tables, stroll on the roadway, roller skate; a woman jogs by with her African gray parrot perched in a screened-in backpack. (Our African gray parrot, wings clipped, is on my shoulder, looking out for hawks.) We've brought grandparents and a young child. Six of us. We have cheese, olives and bread from Nicole's Gourmet Imports. Chicken apricot and tarragon salad, Greek salad, and cookies from Julienne. And potato chips from the grocery store — the kind cooked in olive oil — one bag flavored with rosemary, the other with lemon. There are also pluots from the South Pasadena farmers market and fresh apricots.
We're feeling very Americana ourselves. After the main course, the child among us demands her time at the playground. The rest of us bask in the growing twilight and the sounds of innocent happiness: the crack of a ball on a bat, the creak of the old steel swing sets. We get out mitts and hardballs and play a little catch. The parrot caws at a crow and brattily flings half an apricot onto the ground. Once the sun goes down, a general crankiness overtakes the children, who, moments before, were squealing with delight. A low-key but inexorable exodus begins. We feel its pull. Our child has a skinned knee and limps pathetically. Ice sloshes in the ice chest as we carry it back to the car.
The place: Lacey Park, 1485 Virginia Road, San Marino, (626) 304-9648. ($3 admission fee for nonresidents on weekends.)
Suggested food sources: Euro Pane Bakery, 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Suite 107, Pasadena, (626) 577-1828. (Sandwiches, chocolate biscotti, pastries, artisanal bread.) Julienne, 2649 Mission St., San Marino, (626) 441-2299. (Sandwiches, deli salads, cheeses, entrées, cookies, brownies. Pre-packed picnics prepared with advance notice.) Nicole's Gourmet Imports, 921 Meridian Ave., Unit B, South Pasadena, (626) 441-9600. (Imported cheeses, olives, pâtés, sandwiches, cold cuts.) Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, 830 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 791-4890. (Fried chicken.)