When I was young, one of my favourite things to read was the old 1960’s Time-Life “Cuisines of the World” cookbook set my parents had. I flipped through it many times, because before I even became interested in cooking I could appreciate the fantastic photos of life and culture (especially food culture) in far-flung countries. These things were great, each volume highlighting the cuisine of a different nation or region, and they were chock full of beautiful pictures — timeless places that still had regional cuisine and traditions, ate local food, lived without globalised industry, supermarkets, and industrial agriculture, actually connected with what they ate, how it was made and where it came from, and generally didn’t behave like anyone I knew in America. Of course, that’s how I see it today. Back then, I’d simply look at the pictures of Moroccans walking through an outdoor market, surrounded by piles of spices, of provincial French farmers cooking rabbits or game-hens on a spit in the field for lunch, Trinidadians currying goats and cooking flying fish over an open fire, Spaniards buying fish and mussels and crabs from fishermen standing on boats, stocking up for the evening’s paella. To the average American six year old in the eighties, hot dogs came from a plastic package and had no recognisable ingredients, pizza came in a cardboard box from a guy who walked up to your door, and these pictures were intoxicatingly exotic.
Without fail, these books always contained gorgeous images of people eating and cooking and laughing in big groups — usually outdoors — with fresh, handmade food.
I know you’ll tell me that we have barbecues all the time here, full of people cooking, eating, and having fun outside. That’s certainly true, but look around at one of these barbecues, and you’ll see a decent majority of the food was pre-packaged, pre-made, pre-processed, produced in a factory by the ton or cubic yard, vacuum-sealed, shipped hundreds of miles, and that all the profits wound up going to a corporate office a long way from your community.
Now, I accept that this is the Way Of America, but it hasn’t always been, and I don’t believe that it always will be, or that we have to eat like this every day . . . which brings me to my proposal: let’s take a single day to get together and eat the way we used to. Let’s have a massive, gourmet picnic on an industrial scale, but make everything by hand. Let’s keep it local, make it classy, and prove that we don’t need corporations, massive carbon footprints, and processed food to feed America.
Now lets move away from all this conceptual stuff and talk about what I’m actually proposing we do:
I want to virally promote an outdoor gourmet meal, filled with friends of friends of friends, all united by common interests: cooking/eating great, fresh food. I want to support small businesses, small farms, value-added local products, and home-cooks. I want to hold our meal in a quiet park somewhere away from the city. I want dozens of people to come, and I want everyone to show up in old-fashioned semi-formal clothes (Why old-fashioned? Because A: it’s awesome and B: it’s in keeping with the general aesthetic of this thing) bearing nothing but handmade foods — no mass-market goods (not a potato chip bag in sight, no plastic soda jugs) — and sit on blankets and talk and cook and eat home-cooked gourmet food under the sky. Sound overly idyllic? Perhaps. But I think it’s doable. I’m not the first to encourage this sort of thing — Alice Waters pioneered locavore food culture in Berkeley decades ago, and the Diner en Blanc (in both its US and European incarnations) is an outdoor event with a similar aesthetic, though it seems like more more of a formal, white-tie social event in nature.
In an ideal world this will come off brilliantly and catch on and we’ll hold one event per season — in the real world I’ll be thrilled just to have you all show up and have a great time.
So help me make it happen!
I’ve picked a date, August the 11th; my birthday conveniently falls on the day before. Now help me decide upon a rural, countryside location (probably a county park, ideally somewhere we can’t see or hear cars; a meadow, light forest, someone’s orchard), help me plan, and help me cook!
If you want to attend, join our facebook event, there we will work out the timing, discuss recipes, logistics, and everything else. The event is open to the public so invite your friends, parents, partners, anyone who loves cooking or eating great food, retro style, and good times.
If you’ve got a CSA and want to contribute ingredients, that’d be amazing. If you’re an enthusiastic home chef, I can’t wait to see what you bring. If you’ve never cooked a day in your life but want to play along, well, it’s not that hard to make lemonade, and there are plenty of other great ways to contribute.
1. Make it yourself: Nothing prepackaged, nothing mass produced. Of course I accept that things like beer, pickles, olives, cheese, wine, etc. are a little harder for the at-home chef and require a longer time scale, but I know a few folks who make their own, and there are also tons of local, small-business, artisan options to fill in the gaps. When it comes to other foods; if you want something specific, make it. Condiments, bread, soda, sausage, it wasn’t that long ago that people had to make their own, and it isn’t that hard to learn to do now. The internet provides tons of resources for the uncertain chef, and you’ve got a month and a half to practise.
2. Everyone must contribute: The idea here is to create a community of people who can gather and have fun, and the best way to do that is for everyone to be invested in its success. If you can’t cook, team up with someone who can & learn how; help purchase ingredients; bring silverware, place settings, water, cooking utensils, blankets, tablecloths, napkins, or any of the other myriad supplies we’ll need; arrange carpools; or simply help us plan — the logistics on this will be a bit tricky if we can get it go viral, so planning assistance will be needed.
3. Let’s be classy: Semi-formal/business casual wear required. Retro and period wear encouraged. Bust out your bow-ties, parasols, vests, Sunday hats, and spats — no t-shirts, hoodies, or converse, please. Why? Because it’s a great, beautiful aesthetic, and it’s honestly not that hard to take pride in your appearance. We’ll be putting all kinds of effort into the food; it’d be a shame to let it all down with a lazy appearance and commonplace atmosphere.
4. Keep it clean: Ideally we’ll be doing this in one of California’s gorgeous open spaces — let’s make sure it’s still beautiful when we leave. Whatever you bring, take home with you, and let’s keep our activities as low-impact on the environment as possible while we’re there.
If you choose to attend please share this event with your friends — we’ve even made a facebook event to help make it easier for you to invite anyone and everyone.
Can’t wait to have a picnic with all of you! Feel free to leave comments if you have suggestions. I’d love to hear feedback from people both near and far.