In which the author tells you how to run your life -- or at least how to make the most of the fun parts of it.

For instance, inside these pages you will learn how to weather a mortar attack in good spirits; how to avoid booking yourself on the Internet into a bed and breakfast full of twee quilts and dusty tchotkes; and how to plan a dinner party that will stun your guests with deliciousness and style and not destroy your will to live with the amount of work you have to do to pull it off.

These are things I know firsthand, and things people who know me often ask me about (though I usually just book them into bed and breakfasts myself -- identifying ruffled death traps is an acquired skill). I am almost always right about everything (food, style and travel-related, anyway, and often many other things) and if everyone would just do as I say, dinner would taste better, cupcakes would not be dry, your parties would be more fun (for you), and mortar attacks... well, they always suck. I can't do anything about them.

*except laundry. I can't manage my own laundry, much less yours.

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to Pack a Proper Picnic

This strange picture brought to you courtesy of the Malvern Theater Players

First, read the passage from Wind in the Willows, where Ratty tells Mole what's inside the basket he's brought. It's awesome and will inspire you.

"‘Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.

‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied
the Rat briefly;
‘O stop, stop,’ cried Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’

‘Do you really think so?’ inquired the Rat seriously ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut in very fine!’"

So the first rule of picnics is dictated by Rat: excess.
The second rule: try to avoid using mayonnaise. That requires all kind of coolers and the like, and warm mayo besides being a vector is also just bleck.

Approach your picnic thusly:
-You don't want to be cutting. So everything either needs to be able to be picked up with the fingers or already in bite-sized pieces.
-You need more of everything than you think you do -- both in amounts and variety.
-Think in terms of courses, but presume everything is going to be laid out at once. Picnics are free-form eating.
-Have more picnic blankets than you think you need. The food takes up a lot of room. Collect real linen table cloths from thrift stores; stains don't matter. It's going to be covered in grass and red wine soon enough. Linen feels great on bare legs, has heft, lasts a long time, and will make you fabulous just by being associated with it.
Have multiple picnic baskets and hampers. This is not the time for you to whip out your plastic tubs or horrible promotional Bud Light coolers. Picnics are rare and should be approached with an attitude of awesomeness. Also, go to Ikea or similar and get yourself 100 percent cotton big napkins. They are good for covering laps, absorbing messes, and are reusable.

Like most things great, picnics take some aforethought. The more time you invest upfront, the more wonderful it will be when, like Ratty, you get to announce the contents of your hampers.

OK: pack some version of this:
-Great olives (with pits included), that you have removed from the brine in which they came, rinsed under cool water, put back in the container and doused with good olive oil, a shower of lemon zest, a few hot red chili flakes and a sprig of whatever fresh herb you can imagine.
-Cheese: I always have soft, pungent Stilton and Carrs wheat crackers, which are sweetish and crumbly. The two together cannot be beat. Throw in some Parana (a mix of parmesan and gouda that people will devour). An aged Gruyere and a cheese planer. Have a small wooden board for cutting and serving.
-Dried apricots and walnut halves. Nice with the cheese.
- Charcuterie: You need something spicy -- a chorizo cantimpalo, a good sliced salami. Prosciutto will melt into itself. Avoid that.
- Bread: Dazzle them with some flavored breads -- a raisin walnut boule, a cheese/sour dough boule. Go beyond the baguette.
- Spreads: No one turns down hummus and baby carrots. If you are in DC and can get your hands on Cava's line of spreads, the crazy feta is wonderful. Bring pre-cut celery stalks (you cut them not the store. those are all dried out) and a knife to spread it in there.
- Grapes: black oblong grapes are best., if you can find them. Then red seedless. In both cases, wash them and cut them into little clusters so people aren;'t tearing off grapes like savages. Everyone gets their own cluster (or 4). These are refreshing and good to nibble on throughout the day.

The main course (choose one)
-Homemade fried chicken. It's a ridiculous mess and amount of work, but worth doing once. You'll be heralded forever. It should involve buttermilk and cayenne pepper, and happy albeit dead chickens.
- Or boneless or bone in chicken breasts cooked the night before. Use a recipe that you like, and plan on serving them cold. Roasted chicken breast on the bone with tarragon is wonderful. Boneless breasts cooked -- not overcooked -- and sauces with a honey/cider vinegar glaze and fresh herbs is good.
-or chicken thighs cooked in a soy/brown sugar sauce of some sort and served brown and caramelized.
-Some wonderful sandwiches (if you do sandwiches, minimize the amount of bread and cheese served above):
-good roast beef, caramelized onions and blue cheese with fresh spinach in a hollowed out crusty loaf (baguette is ok) that you compress a bit, then slice and wrap . Use wax or butcher paper, and if you're feeling super committed and ridiculous, jute twine or string.
-sliced chicken, roasted red peppers, honey mustard, arugula
- My one mayo exception: cubes of good quality smoked turkey, cold cooked wild rice, fresh dill, red seedless grapes cut in half, toasted almond slivers, and a touch of mayo. Totally delicious on bread or eaten out of chinese food containers.

-- Cut the sandwiches into extra pieces so people can sample --

The sides:
Potato salad: make it german or italian style -- no mayo. Boil and slice your potatoes (yukon gold hold their shape well) and toss them while warm with olive oil, a little vinegar, warm, just fried crumbled bacon, fresh herbs, salt , pepper, and lots of sliced scallions. Let them sit. Bring a little bit more lemon juice and olive oil dressing.

or sesame noodles (follow a recipe you like. It should involve slivered raw red pepper, cilantro, cucumber cubes or spears). I'd err on the side of sesame oil over peanut butter in the sauce, but either works. Don't oversauce it, but make sure to bring extra sauce and retoss before serving, because the noodles can absorb a lot. Bring chop sticks for this.

Deviled eggs? Why not. Modernize them with lots of fresh herbs in the yolk mix, no chopped pickles or relish (I hate that) and a drizzle of a fresh herbed olive oil over the top.

A cucumber salad -- with or without tomatoes, but always a little purple onion and loads of fresh dill.

Grilled or roasted asparagus with orange zest over the top.

Homemade refrigerator pickles. Do green beans, carrots with little stems on them, little cucumbers. Make them a little spicy. Serve in a gorgeous mason jar. This takes a little planning but its worth it.

No salad. Gets wilted. The only tomatoes you should have should be in season, ripe and whole, ready to be sliced. Don't put tomatoes on the sandwiches. They will make everything soggy and horrible.

Dessert: At least 3 different ones. One must involve chocolate.
Brownies, of course
Homemade cookies (I like salty oatmeal and cranberry cookies)
Hand pies (individual fruit pies you make like turnovers. Each are good, or cherry or rhubarb).
Good quality dark chocolate.
A whole or half watermelon and a knife to slice it.
Pound cake and clean strawberries with the stems still attached (bring some sour cream and brown sugar if you really want to do the strawberries right. Dip them in sour cream, then sugar, then bite. Yerm)
Don't do cupcakes. Blasphemy! I know. But you want everyone sharing in this meal, so it's much better instead to bust out a giant homemade layer cake covered in coconut and filled with lemon curd or nutella or whatever. This is a community event, and you don't want everyone carefully and selfishly nibbling away. and cupcakes take up MUCH more room.

as you wish. Bring water with cucumber or lemon or lime slices already in it. You can pack it in bottles, then freeze them, and use them to keep everything else chilled.
wine can be tricky because it should be kept pretty well chilled, and then there is the opening etc. If the weather is cool bring a small flask of whiskey or rum and a thermos of strong hot hot hot coffee. Drop a piece of chocolate in the coffee and give it a splash of whiskey.

Pack in the reverse order in which you will serve so when you unpack in front of wondering eyes, they will enjoy it like a great concert. ("please sing If I had a Boat! Please Sing If I Had A Boat!" and then he does. Build anticipation!)

Bring salt and pepper and additional dressings as necessary. To make life REALLY easy and your bags lighter, ask your guests to bring their own cutlery, plates, and cups. Then you just pack up your empty containers and toss the rest. (Someone will forget, so bring a few extra forks).

You're welcome. (Invite me).


  1. The smartest thing we did with our wedding gifts was to return the ridiculously expensive cashmere and wool blanket in exchange for the perfect English picnic hamper. Thermoses and containers...complete and wonderful.
    I wish you'd travel this way this summer.

    1. I would love to, but need directions to Tuvalu. Does life every find you in Washington, D.C.?