Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A la Recherche du Pique-nique Parfait

Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et la drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques.

One of my very fondest culinary memories is of an early episode of The French Chef in which Julia Child made madeleines. I was inspired to go out and get my own madeleine molds, and, really, there was nothing all that special about the cookies that I got by following her recipe, though they were certainly tasty. But at the end of the episode, Ms. Child sits down, puts on her reading glasses, pulls out a copy of In Search of Lost Times (which, in those days, was still translated as A Remembrance of Things Past for reasons that were not clear to me and that I suspect were never very good) and begins reading the above passage. She was reading in English, of course, (Which was how I read Swann's Way, the only volume of Proust that I ever made it through. I liked it just fine, but I was twenty at the time, and I didn't feel like I had the time to read six more volumes of the same.) but she stopped after saying "short and plump" to smile and say, "courts et dodus," and the whole experience just seemed to make her so happy that I was not especially disposed to doubt that a cookie could really occasion so many musings. I myself have been known to muse over even less for fairly extended passages, but I think it's fair to say that I've never gone to Proustian lengths. Yet.

Here (i.e., in this sentence) is where I attempt to make a virtue of necessity by acknowledging that I have no transition into the substance of this post. It is true that there are few things that make me happier than a well-executed picnic or watching Julia Child, but there is otherwise not much connection between the two. Nearly ten years ago now, when I was newly out as a gay man, I happened to be dating a man who happened to mention, in a moment of repose, that no one had ever taken him on a picnic. So I took him on a picnic the next weekend, and we had a great time, and he dumped me about a week later. I've had a fascination with picnics ever since, but I'm pretty sure it was because of how much fun I had putting one together, rather than any sort of unfulfilled desire arising out of being dumped.

Anyway. Cooking for other people and travel are among my greatest joys, and a picnic combines them neatly. Add in the fact that they usually take place when the weather's fine and at a pleasant location, and what's not to love? So this is going to be the first of a series of posts (don't worry, they will be occasional rather than consecutive) about picnics, because, well, because I have a lot to say on the subject. And we may as well start with the picnic basket (I was going to insert a Yogi the Bear reference here, but I reckon most of you are too young to get it. Bitches.)

Anyway, I was shopping with YFU at Ikea a couple of weekends ago, and when we got near the checkout counters, I shrieked with delight (for the record, when I shriek with delight, it involves nodding my head slightly, and saying, "Cool" in a low voice) when I saw boxes full of plastic dishes. The Ikea name for this particular tableware is Kalas, which may mean something in Swedish or may be a deliberate distortion of the name of a famous soprano who is rumored once to have eaten a tapeworm in order to lose weight in order to hang on to her man, who nonetheless married Jacqueline Kennedy. I suspect the latter only because Ms. Callas was, in the day, (i.e., before even my time) something of a gay icon, and one of the reasons why I jumped on the Kalas plates, bowls, cups, and flatware is that the "assorted colors" are rainbow colors, and that makes them a near-perfect choice for a picnic when your guests are either gay men (i.e., most of my picnic-going friends) or fag hags (i.e., my daughters).

I say "near-perfect" because the plates are just a bit on the small side. On the other hand, a set of six Kalas anything goes for just $1.99, so the entire picnic set you see in the picture at the top of this post cost me $9.06 (4 x$1.99 for the plates, bowls, cups, and flatware, $0.59 for the big blue Ikea bag, and $0.51 tax). If you were giving this set as a gift (and picnic sets make terrific gifts), you might want to add some napkins and a throw, but you could get those at Ikea, too, and your total would still be under $15, so for about what you might spend for a bottle of wine, you'd have a gift that would actually indicate some thought and originality.

Baskets are more traditional picnic carrying devices, and they do have the advantage of rigidity, which is important if your dishes are breakable. But they're hard to carry, and they generally don't have enough room for all of the food and supplies necessary for a picnic. The blue Ikea bag, on the other hand, is humongous. It will hold at least twice as much as you need for a picnic for six, with room left over for all seven volumes of Proust and a Frisbee.

Of course, you can have a perfect picnic without ever going near either Ikea or its website. Large tote bags are not hard to come by, and you can save money and other resources by finding your dishes, etc. at garage sales and flea markets. I might be doing just that in order to replace the small Kalas plates with something larger. Many years ago, at an estate sale, I found a set of square plastic plates with faux wood grain printed on them. They were delightfully tacky and perfect for a picnic, but I shed them in one of the moves. I weep the bitter tears of loss every time I remember them.

Consignment shops are also good sources for picnicware, but -- around here anyway -- I find their prices somewhat exuberant. But I haven't been to any of the local consignment shops in a while, so it's possible that they've lowered prices in recognition of the recession. As, indeed, has Ikea. Then again, that might simply be due to the recent strengthening of the dollar.

My picnic preparation typically also involves a trip to Home Depot. One of their cheap (about $3) plastic dropcloths is a good thing to toss in your picnic bag in case you get to your picnic spot and find that the dew has not quite disappeared from the grass in your shady spot. Also, it helps minimize grass stains on your blanket. Any grass stains from a picnic should be on your pants, and you should get them in a way that is both fun and scandalous. For that particular activity, you may forget, for the moment, Proust, and instead take your inspiration from A Room with a View.


  1. Kalas means party, or more oftenly only birthday party nowadays in Swedish.

    I guess one other reason IKEA might be cheaper now is due to that the Swedish currency is LOW, like lets-not-ever-leave-the-country-for-vacation-again-low.

    My niece has the same cutlery and I always wondered what the designer was thinking making the handle/knob look that way, or is it just me that has a dirty imagination?

    I like the new blog BTW.

  2. Picnic sets like my parents used in the 50s are more environmentally friendly, too. And hard surface plates are infinitely better than the paper ones that collasp under the weight of the food. And metal or strong reuseable plastic cuttlery greatly surpasses those plastic forks that break with the lightest amount of pressure. I wish they would make those wine boxes refillable though, so you could toss a box of sangria into that bag too.