Al Fresco

long table, outstanding

I 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.

Outstanding in the Fields dinner

Outstanding in the Fields dinner

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.

Someone 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.

the picnic basket I just had to have!!!

the picnic basket I just had to have!!!

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.

So, 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 (click on highlighted website)   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.

outstanding in the fields 3

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12 Responses to “Al Fresco”

  1. robin says:

    I am you. or you are me. or in any case I feel all of those things..
    sounds so lovely and romantic. ends up a fuckng mess.
    love being served in civilized setting. lost whatever spontaneity I ever had when i became unable get off the ground without an assist.
    love your story your writing and you…

  2. I will take the table above the basket any day!
    Your writing is becoming more and more fluid, like a wonderful conversation…
    I agree w/ Robin…Love all around…

  3. Laura Plotkin says:

    Sounds like heaven when someone else is doing the work–I totally agree and HATE bugs while I’m eating (can’t concentrate on the pleasure at hand while I am fending off wasps and mosquitos)! That being said, there is nothing more wonderful than a successful al fresco meal, a light breeze, the right temperature, the fragrance of the flowers in the garden, good food, wine and conversation–so primal and perfect!

  4. Hoov says:

    the fish market here in Paia and you are not going to play well together . Because that is just like it is. You order and then go sit down at one of maybe 10 picket table with the other folks and wait for your name. go pick it up and then in the end you deliver the plates back to an overflowing bus tub filled with plate after consuming the best fish I have ever eaten . Oh by the way they are from topanga canyon and the place just rocks. Love it and will eat the best burger to fish there. I will take you and hubby and kids the next time you are here and will sit you down and be the waiter and will laugh my bird ass off the way back to Wailuku after your first bit of the food. It is a oral delight and I will keep it clean. Aloha my wakko rat. Hoov

  5. Nicole Foos says:

    I’m just so enjoying your posts!!

  6. I’m with you, I like being served and don’t care for bugs. When I get to go out I want to be waited on. An outdoor picnic will meander through my consciousness like some romantic unfulfilled dream, but then I think, get real! Loved this post and the photos. You have such a great way of telling a story.

  7. Valentina says:

    Ha! Fredde, I also was obsessed with those picnic basket sets! But I stood in front of one on display once… and figured out that cleaning and putting it all back together would stress me out. The best picnic meals I ever ate were a) finger food grabbed on the run in France (i.e., fresh bread, cheese, salami & fruit) and b) picking up sloppy, hot pastrami with cole slaw on rye sandwiches at a nearby deli (Zucky’s?) and eating them overlooking the beach at the very same Palisades Park.

  8. Judi E says:

    Reminded me of a picnic I attempted with my BFF and her family in Sag Harbor. We went to this incredibly snazzy deli in East Hampton and loaded up on the finest cheeses, prosciutto, salami, French bread, wine. You get the picture. We loaded everyone up and brought them to the beach that overlooked a fantastically blue ocean on the one side and gazillion-dollar estates on the other. We laid out a gorgeous picnic and all sat down to enjoy. We were immediately attacked by a swarm of black flies that numbered in the millions (I don’t think this is an exaggeration), ruining our spread and forcing us to flee…

    SO enjoyable, your piece — as always!

  9. cristi ulrich says:

    The best picnic ever is a set table and served to you… Al Fresco! Please give me the net too!! Love this Freddi!! Took me back to Loire Valley in France….

  10. pauli says:

    Well, from the high quality of responses to this blog you should write A LOT MORE about picnics. Everyone has a great point.
    Having been on the serving end of many of these soirees in the garden, at the beach, on the terrace, et al – I can truly say that I would prefer everyone sit at my granite kitchen counter and be served like royalty. The picnic is best left to those who really want to share bottle of wine, gaze into each others eyes and enjoy the setting. Unless you have “help” who is able to fan away the flies, offer you finger bowls and clean up the mess. Preferably people who have time traveled here from the 1920’s and worked for the Gatsby crowd. Great story – more please!!

  11. Fredde!
    I agree with you so much about everything I’m beginning to think it’s in the genes. The Jewish ones, of course. Then I think maybe I am one of those people that just goes along with what other people think as long as what that think is genius and inspired. Is there a word for that?
    LOved this!

  12. gari says:

    love this fredde~i have no interest in going on a picnic~cannot stand bugs while i am eating well actually i am to fond of them at any time~i like to be served in a restaurant and pampered~not sure that is really the word i am looking for but you get the point~i love your writing as always and it always makes me smile~you have a way of making me feel like i am right there with you~
    lots of love, gari

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