Al Fresco

long-table-outstandingI just drove by the sweetest scene: an elderly couple picnicking in Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  Elderly, I say, when they are probably only ten years older than me.  I am eternally drawn to the romantic notion of al fresco dining.  (Al Fresco sounds like the name of a gangster gunned down while dining in Little Italy, though not necessarily outdoors.)

I have a fantasy of serving meals outdoors to be eaten on a long picnic table with a vintage French tablecloth and beautiful cutlery and cloth napkins.  I also have a fantasy of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, but it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

While I might like the idea of eating outdoors, I hate fighting the elements and the insects.  So I never serve a meal outside and don’t really enjoy outdoor dining unless, perhaps, it’s on a screened-in porch.  I like a barrier.  I will, however, contradict myself and tell you I choose the patio at most restaurants because it can be infinitely more charming.  Like, say, at The Ivy.  Ivy at The Shore is safer from wind and flying bugs because it’s covered, so that’s the patio I prefer.  But the charm of the patio at The Ivy in West Hollywood cannot be beat.

A very romantic, picnic-throwing person lives somewhere deep inside me.  But she appears only every twenty years or so.  Like a cicada.  That’s how often I will organize (I use the word organize loosely, more like throw together) a picnic lunch.  I was once obsessed with those terribly expensive picnic baskets that come with plates, napkins, thermos and all.  OBSESSED!!  Had to have one.  Put one on my bridal registry. 

Who was I kidding?  Not only hadn’t I used a kitchen except to maybe boil an egg, I was missing that gene.  You know, the one that makes you a chick who cooks, cleans, nests … a wife? I am, however, the chick that orders from a gourmet shop or deli counter and might even eat in the car.  Maybe even with the windows down.  But I fear a bee will fly in, looking to sting me, so I’m cautious.

picnic-basket-i-wantedSomeone went to the trouble of purchasing that picnic basket for me.  I touched it, looked at all the contents, but never moved them for fear I might not get them back into place.  Then I displayed it.  And I walked by it a lot and then just sort of forgot about it.  After my first child was born, I did bring the picnic basket with me one fine spring day.  (Well, you do have to take your kid to the park to play.)  I pulled out those plastic plates — melamine by the way, not safe — and the sweetest red & white checkered gingham tablecloth with matching napkins.

What a fucking hassle.  Packing the lunch.  Then opening that basket to lay all the tools out.  I never did get the plates back in properly.  Furthermore, I didn’t know what to do with those dirty plates when we were done at the park.  A bag of half-eaten sandwiches and used napkins you can just toss in a public trashcan.  Anyone with me here?  Probably not.   Anyway, not a picnic person.  I don’t even like those restaurants, some with very good food, where you have to order at the cash register and then find a table and display your number on some cockamamie stand till the food is brought to you.  I like to sit down and have a menu and order with a waiter or waitress.  It’s so much more civilized.

Speaking of “civilized,” and having said all that I just said, I did once go to the most amazing outdoor picnic. Outstanding in the Field runs what they call a roving culinary adventure.  They set a very long table at farms, gardens or ranches all over the United States and Canada and hire a celebrated chef of the region to prepare a gourmet feast.  I’m so grateful that my friend Barbara wanted me to check it out with her.  We ordered our tickets online and were going to Santa Barbara, the location.  I asked her to print out the information and bring it along.  Half way there, I learned that she forgot it.  And now we were screwed because we didn’t own smart phones at the time with the ability to search.

outstanding-2So, we stopped at my friend Cathy’s to-die-for-enviable home in Carpenteria where, incidentally, she happens to throw amazing outdoor dinners and luncheons at perfectly set long picnic tables.  But she was born with that gene – she was once the director of merchandising for Shabby Chic — and has the knack for it.  She turned her garage space into an enchanting atelier where she not only runs crafting workshops, but sells vintage treasures and other finds that she reburshes.  Her very exclusive business is called Summerland Mercantile.   I digress.

Cathy went online and figured out that our dinner would be held at Coleman Farm.  She was kind enough to lead the way,  through all these great rustic/secret back roads, driving past stunning old Santa Barbara missions to Coleman Farm.  The chef was from a Newport Beach Restaurant called Sage.  Coleman Family Farm is spectacular, filled with succulents and flowering trees.  They take you on a walking tour, showing you some of the very produce that will be on the table when dinner is served.  This beautiful meal had six courses.  Some of the dishes were local white bass crusted with citrus zest and steamed with Coleman Farm vegetables, braised grass-fed beef short ribs and an orchard peach tart.  These dinners get booked up fast, so find out when they will be in a town near you.


Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.