The one summer I spent at home during college, I took a job as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl, the outdoor amphitheatre/oasis in the Hollywood Hills where the Los Angeles Philharmonic makes its seasonal home.
Wearing black slacks, a house-issued tie, and a laminated ID hung by lanyard around my neck, I'd guide patrons to their seats and snap photos of tourists in front of the Hollywood sign before concerts. As darkness enveloped the band shell each night, the white tuxedo-clad orchestra would strike up a tune, and I'd await the hilariously protracted clinking of an empty wine bottle rolling down step after step after step of the steep amphitheatre aisles—a picnic basket escapee, as much a part of the sonic fabric of the Bowl as the orchestra itself.
The pleasure excursion of a picnic is integral to the experience of summertime in Los Angeles. It's a season when we gather at the Bowl for classical concerts, in cemeteries and parks for old films and music festivals, and at beaches on the edge of the Pacific, where we recline for hours on end with improvised meals spread out on blankets and shared between friends.
A picnic is a jagged hunk of cheddar cheese and salami, cut inexpertly by a pocketknife and couched between bits of hand-torn, sand-flecked baguette at the beach.
For me, late summer in LA is a season of forgetting. The industriousness of fall still seems far off, and New York is all but shut down by August, so in LA we're kind of left to our own devices. And since we're melting from the heat half the time any way, we're often outside actually enjoying LA, because the weather is just too beautiful to excuse doing anything else. It's like, let's earn that reputation of lackadaisicalness for which we're so well known!
Which is why the picnic is the perfect summertime meal here. It's too hot to want to eat anything substantial, and it's too beautiful to want to be inside in the kitchen preparing food. Who'd want to spend precious daytime hours planning a meal? A sensible person would not consider it. If you're not grilling, you should be picnicking.
The promise of the picnic lies in embracing these circumstances. Despite its Victorian roots, there's nothing precious about a picnic—and there's nothing mannered or dogmatic about it either. Its spirit is the slightly wild, ill-planned sort. It's a detour. It's cheap. And it's not something you can bottle.
So while local restaurants offer pre-packed picnic baskets that I'm sure are entirely delicious, I couldn't really tell you, because I've never had one. I doubt I ever will. They seem to run against everything a picnic is to me. It's not so much my fear they'd be too unwieldy to share, or too delicate to travel, or too precious or pricy for a picnic—it's that a restaurant is the farthest thing from my mind when I'm on a picnic adventure.
Because a picnic is a last-minute trip to the Bowl to see the Tchaikovsky fireworks spectacular—with just enough time to run to the store for a slab of paté, a jar of cornichons, and a ten-dollar bottle of vinho verde. It's a jagged hunk of cheddar cheese and salami, cut inexpertly by a pocketknife and couched between bits of hand-torn, sand-flecked baguette at the beach. It's lying, blissed-out and chillaxed with your third Dixie cup-full of albariño, on top of a moving blanket from the trunk of your car you forgot was even in there until you decided to make a day of it at a Latin music concert at LACMA.
To be sure, there can be drawbacks to a picnic. Ants, bears. No real dignified way to eat soup. But remember that a picnic is an elevated ritual that takes its bizarre power from the many non-food-related joys that led to it—sunshine, friends, a day completed wasted to fun.
Fucking mustard. What genius brought mustard to this picnic?
And while the delight of a picnic has so much to do with a spirit of summertime in LA, it's still about the food you end up throwing together—which doesn't always necessarily fit, and wouldn't necessarily work in any other context, either, but at a picnic is just perfect. A vinegary cornichon can cut through the sweetness of a cantaloupe melon pretty well. Fried chicken, no matter the source, is delicious. And chardonnay is a thing you can actually enjoy drinking, with total impunity and genuine delight, on these rare excursions.
Here is a continued partial list of what you can and should do at a picnic, that would be unlikely or unappetizing in many other eating scenarios:
- poke a wine cork in with a pen
- eat cheese off a Frisbee you find in your car's backseat
- cut salami with the pocketknife, never cleaned, attached to your key chain
- eat things speckled with dirt, sand, or flies
- drink cold white wine out of a Nalgene bottle, shared with your picnic companions
- handle literally everything with your bare hands before eating
- forget napkins and wipe your face clean with bits of yesterday's LA Times California section
This too is the soul of the picnic experience: finding new gustatory pleasures in the simple and everyday. Take the ingredients that end up in your basket, like mustard. Fucking mustard. What genius brought mustard to this picnic? And where else but a picnic would mustard's incredible flavor, for once on proper display as one of just a half-dozen bodega-bought items, achieve such a rarefied status?
Mustard sandwich season won't last forever though. So in these last dog days of summer, I hope you find yourself in some beautiful place outdoors, with a crust of bread in your hand, and something spreadable gathering flies between you and your loved ones, sitting on a forgotten blanket you found in the trunk of your car. You'll probably want something salty, and something sweet—but don't over-think it. Just remember that if you try hard enough, you can fit three bottles of cold wine into nearly any conveyance, no matter the size or shape.
And if one of those dead soldiers goes rolling down the aisles of the Hollywood Bowl during the adagio movement of Beethoven's Fifth, please don't trip—know that we all consider it part of the experience.