Omar had the idea of the picnic down back in the eleventh century: the oft-repeated refrain, "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou" is attributed to the Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam.
My own favorite twenty-first century picnic memories are almost all tangible personal moments for two--not the vast thronging Chicago formula of the checkered cloth unfurled to cover a spot of sod in Grant Park while amplified music scars the stars, or while a 60-foot Alvy Singer frolics with lobsters--and the simpler the better. Simple: more real, better, repeatable. I had reason to be proud of the showiest picnic I ever devised, on a long vacation, when I surprised my then-girlfriend on her birthday with ripe lychees, mangosteens and champagne in the cataract of a hidden waterfall atop a green island in the South China Sea. (Showy, yes, but memorable after that long hike through exotic brambles and bushes on a narrow, rutted dirt path.) But moments like the innocent summer of 2001 sing a sweet song, and that was mostly about late nights improvised on a Humboldt Park back porch as disconsolate, relentless warm rain pissed on and on, lots of Old Style, sometimes red wine, random leftovers, occasional Doritos, sometimes whisky, while a gonzo black Lab named Johnny Ratones humped for attention.
Cities are paved with takeout. Good stuff's an easy bike ride from most parts of the city. Boutique storefronts like Bucktown's Goddess and the Grocer make the most of mac and cheese. You can pick your nick, whether you want to nosh and nibble at Käse, fromage, queso, formaggio or queijo. (Cheese, Louise.) If music be the food of love, play that funky mandoline.
But most of the time, I fear, that's a microwave daydream. We're taking the time neither to cook nor to eat properly, swallowing bites from plastic containers with a plastic fork standing at an eat-in island of a spotless, spic-and-span kitchen or slouched on a couch that's less from Ikea than from a lack of shame.
The phrase the English use, "takeaway," seems more promising than "takeout," as if the sack filled with samosas or chips and fish had the poetic power to sweep you away from all of this or that. A serpentine through aisles or piles of produce can be a spirited start to a long Saturday that does not end. Summer's as big as all outdoors and markets like Lincoln Park's Green City Market, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, are ripe with brilliant produce from area artisanal farmers, heartening goodness like organic dairy products, radishes, turnips, organically raised meat and poultry, edible flowers, sweet onions, summer squash, early tomatoes in July and heirlooms in August. There's another on weekends in Humboldt Park where backyard gardeners let go of their babies.
I've always romanticized the idea of waltzing through the organic markets with a basket and a date and a plan for the end of the day: collect all the ingredients for sandwiches and sides, one vendor at a time. Caution: foodstuff used as exotic condiments can lead to pregnancy, marriage proposals and worse.
(You burp, I snort. And whoever farts first, loudly, not shy, laughs and never apologizes. Bellies are light but full and the night begins. You have something on your lip... right... there. Got it.)
[Originally published in Newcity, 28 July 2005.]