ColumnFood, friends and manual labor.
“We need to make another picnic table.”
When you live in an apartment building, it’s not really the bucolic setting of a country house with a beautiful backyard, but even a communal outdoor space that has a few garbage bins in the corner can be turned into an outdoor oasis for entertaining. Two summers ago my fellow apartment dweller Dave made a picnic table. It held up for about a season before sitting on it turned into an extreme sport, taking considerable grace when standing up and sitting down so as not to suddenly tip the entire thing over. Despite our best efforts to simply have it as the “serving table,” we quickly learned that if a picnic table graces your backyard, people will try to sit on it.
It needed a replacement.
Dave was good enough to get $20 worth of reclaimed lumber from the Rebuilding Center and construct a frame, so come Sunday all I had to do was hold a couple of boards in place and drill in all of the screws. I made a pair of jean shorts for the occasion. If you’re going to be making your own picnic table just a few hours before hosting your dinner party, it’s only appropriate.
This is no fancy picnic table. The thing isn’t even sanded, which makes the potential of splinters just part of the meal. But much like simple food can often taste better than its more complex version, a handmade picnic table becomes part of the experience, a reminder that using our hands to build something is a worthwhile activity that most don’t save time for.
We finished it with 45 minutes to spare and I went to invent an almond and fig tart concoction for dessert.
This summer we have in fact mastered our guide to entertaining:
1. Email friends that they should bring over a side dish and/or drink on a certain day and time.
2. Put a salmon/lobster/marinated meat/asparagus/corn on the grill.
3. Make a couple of side dishes and a moderately fancy dessert with seasonal berries.
4. Drink a glass of sparkling water and walk around the backyard of the apartment building barefoot while waiting for guests to show up.
This is no frills dining, where mason jars abound and good food somehow just appears. How else does one explain a spread that includes Marcona almonds, kale salad, corn on the cob with chili lime garlic butter and cotija, watermelon with lime and walnut salad, heirloom tomatoes with basil and a few slices of pecorina and spicy mango salsa?
I overheard someone say, “When Brones sends an email inviting you to a barbecue, you know you should say yes.” Although I’d like to take credit for throwing the kind of affairs that people want to attend, the central component is bringing together people that want to take time to celebrate good food, whether they make it themselves or not.
Sometimes we focus so much on what the food is – Is it organic? Is it local? Did you know the butcher? I am off dairy, is there milk in that? – that we get distracted from enjoying the full process. Making something with our hands, bringing it to share with a group of friends. These are basic things, and all things that no matter where you are on the foodie scale, you need. We need sustenance and we need community, which is why the two things seamlessly go hand in hand.
Backyard dinner parties are reminders of what is important in life: good food and friends. They don’t have to be complicated to be successful. They don’t have to require long shopping lists and days of preparation. You can simply be barefoot, bring a dish, and trust in the fact that sometimes serendipity is the best recipe for enjoying a late summer evening.
Watermelon Basil Salad with Lime and Walnuts
- 1/2 of a large seedless watermelon cut into small cubes
- juice of 1 lime
- 1/4 cup chopped basil
- 1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
Mix all ingredients in a salad bowl and serve,
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.