July 31, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 17°C

No pheasant required

Picnics were once a linchpin of French upper and middle class life.
By Suzanne Dunaway
Published: 2014-07-13

ow about a picnic on the grass or on a sun-warmed rock with the sea teasing your toes? How about food on the tailgate of a car at a ball game or at soccer practice or under a bough with a loaf of bread and a glass of wine beside a little white road with only cows for company?

A picnic is summer delight regardless of venue. It can be a whatever-is-in-the-fridge spread on a beach towel or a more artful array of temptations.

Picnics, it's true, don't seem quite as in vogue as they were a century ago. Cold roast pheasant and paté productions packed in antique wicker and served by a housemaid in a little white apron, "Downton Abbey"-style, have lost some of their luster. But good picnics don't really need pheasants or housemaids.

When I was 18, my mother took us to Europe for the first time. We rented a little Volkswagen and toodled around rural France picking up fresh baguettes, creamy local cheeses, fruit and a good bottle of something we could whip out wherever we stopped. I still have a black-and-white photo of the group of us eating off the hood, my mother in a 1950s headscarf and I, baguette in hand, gazing saucer-eyed at the wonders of France.

My mother, the picnic queen, would pack our ancient hamper with a plate of curried deviled eggs, moist sandwiches on just-baked bread made from leftover chicken or roast beef (with butter, mayonnaise and mustard) or ham (always butter on those!) and her homemade dill pickles to nibble on the side. For dessert, we got crispy sugar cookies or dense brownies and always a lovely "ambrosia" of cut-up oranges, apples, and other fruits in season.

Later, I made my own memories, concocting picnics in the underground parking lot of the Director's Guild building in Los Angeles. Early screenings made a real dinner impossible, so we'd dine in the car. I'd pack tuna fish sandwiches on 7-grain sliced bread, cut-up fruits, and a half-bottle of our favorite wine. We'd push back the seats and spread paper towels to protect the car interior and our laps. We sipped from real wine glasses, and I included chilled mineral water, a salt-and-pepper shaker, and a bar of our favorite dark chocolate — to make sure we stayed awake during the movie!

Bring along whatever you have handy.

Another favorite picnic spot was a French truck stop, a lay-by with tables and basic amenities. We'd bring pret a manger sandwiches from autoroute shops, adding our own condiments, fruits and nuts, the long-trip staples we've carried in every car we've ever owned. We'd munch while gazing over green fields at the magical walled city of Carcasonne in the distance.

A picnic isn't a picnic without sandwiches. Even if you somehow managed to rustle up a whole, roast chicken or a bowl of cold pasta salad tossed with fresh tomatoes, basil and olive oil, the sandwich is king.

As for fillings, here are some of my favorites:

— In a food processor bowl or a large one of any kind, mix two cans of white albacore tuna in extra virgin olive oil, a spoon or two of sweet onion, a small tart apple (cored), a few capers, a few sprigs of fresh basil, and a stalk of celery, all chopped fine. Add a handful of crushed grilled almonds, the juice of a lemon, fresh ground pepper, and about 3/4 cup of mayonnaise to bind everything well.

You may add tomato or avocado slices to the sandwich, or simply chop the two together with olive oil and vinegar and pack them in a Tupperware as an accompaniment.

— Another fondness, and a southern staple, is old-fashioned pimiento cheese made with very mild cheddar or any mild cheese found in your area (it was once made with Velveeta or Kraft slices). When I'm in France, I use a lovely silky cheese called tomme Catalan; in California, I go for a nutty-tasting Jack cheese.

Either way, it again starts with the food processor bowl, which you fill with 500 grams of your preferred cheese, one red sweet pepper (grilled, peeled and chopped), a spoon of Dijon mustard, and a half-cup of mayonnaise. As you process it, pour in beer or white wine to make a thick paste. Add a pinch of cayenne and it's ready for bread or crackers.

Picnics are a great way of getting friends together without having to formally entertain (and clean up) at home. Just call your guests, give them the meeting place, and ask everyone to bring one beloved edible. You can provide the drinks, throwaway napkins, cups, plates, and "silverware."

After all, a couple of pretty tablecloths to spread on the grass are a heck of lot easier to deal with than the endless debris of a dinner party. Oh, and if you happen to have a roast pheasant handy, bring it along.

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