Planning The Perfect Picnic (Food Poisoning Not Included)

paris picnic
Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

The solstice may be a few weeks off yet, but let’s not kid ourselves: summer has begun. A favorite warm weather pastime the world over is dining al fresco. I first discovered the joys of the picnic, in particular, when I was 10, and my family spent the summer traveling Europe in a borrowed Westphalia camper van.

From the Swiss Alps to the Yorkshire Dales, we practiced the art of picnicking and the menu was always a regional variation on bread/cured meat/cheese/chocolate (this is also what fueled my obsession with those foods).

Now that I’m an adult (at least, in theory), I still find picnics to be the ultimate form of outdoor indulgence. This summer, whether your travels take you overseas or only as far as your backyard, plan on making a habit of putting together a portable meal. Eating outdoors is a fun, easy, relaxing way to enjoy the season, especially if you follow these food-safety tips:

  • Make your menu tempting at room temperature. Fried chicken may be a Southern picnic staple, but it’s also a case of food poisoning waiting to happen if it’s not consumed within two hours of preparation (click here for the USDA’s microbiological explanation). Also, two words: soggy coating. Instead, serve sandwiches and grain-, pasta-, or roasted vegetable-based salads.
  • Keep it cool. Line an ice chest with ice packs, and then stash perishables, or if you’re hiking, fill and freeze the bladder from a hydropack. If something needs to be served at “room temperature,” use the ambient air temp to gauge when you should remove it from the cooler. Got some great cheese and it’s 100 degrees out? Five or ten minutes will do the trick.
  • retro picnicepiclectic, Flickr
  • Good hygiene begins at home, but don’t forget to pack some anti-bacterial gel for pre- and post-meal cleanup.
  • Keep it compact, green and clean. A bottle of wine is the ideal companion for a picnic, but broken glass definitely doesn’t make for a good garnish. Use a neoprene wine bag to keep your bottle chilled and protected (if temps are soaring; even red wine needs a cool-down). Use designed-for-outdoor-use stackable cups. For plates and cutlery, forgo the paper-waste and invest in either outdoor dining dishware or biodegradable bamboo products, which are widely available. If you have access to a compost bin (or some chickens), save all non-meat and dairy food scraps in a Tupperware. Leave your picnic spot cleaner than you found it.
  • Keep food fresh and pest-free by covering it with a lid, clean dishtowel or mesh dome (you can frequently find vintage versions of the latter at flea markets and antique shops).

Cochon 555 Pork Competition Turns Five, Kicks Off February 17 In Atlanta

baconMuch ado about pork products is made on Gadling, with good reason. Even if you’re sick to death of pork-centric eateries, and lardo this and sausage that, it’s hard to deny the allure of the other white meat (I can’t tell you how many vegetarians and vegans I know who still have a jones for bacon).

For those of you wanting to attend the ultimate porkapalooza, get your tickets for Cochon 555, a traveling, “National Culinary Competition & Tasting Event Dedicated to Heritage Pigs, Family Wineries & Sustainable Farming.”

The 10-city tour kicks off February 17 in Atlanta, and will include stops in New York; Boston; Chicago; Washington, DC; Miami; Vail; Seattle; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, before culminating in the dramatic Grand Cochon at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 16. Notice that Colorado gets two Cochon visits? The South isn’t the only place that appreciates pork.

Cochon was created by Taste Network’s Brady Lowe to raise awareness about, and encourage the sustainable farming of heritage-breed pigs. At each destination, five celebrated local chefs must prepare a nose-to-tail menu using one, 200-pound, family-raised heritage breed of pig. Twenty judges and 400 guests help decide the winning chef. The 10 finalists will then compete at the Grand Cochon for the ultimate title of “King or Queen of Porc.”

Depending upon venue, attendees can also expect tasty treats like Heritage BBQ; butchery demonstrations; mezcal, bourbon, whiskey and rye tastings; specialty cheese sampling, cocktail competitions; a Perfect Manhattan Bar, raffles, and killer after-parties.

For additional details and tickets, click here. Partial proceeds benefit charities and family farms nationwide.

[Photo credit: Flickr user out of ideas]

Kentucky BBQ: Bring Your Own Squirrels, Raccoons, Possums And Porcupines

kentucky bbqIn Kentucky, you can get a porcupine hickory-smoked for five bucks. A squirrel or a frog will set you back just $2.50. I had no idea that one could kill an animal and then bring it to a place that would smoke it for a fee until I road-tripped to Kentucky last week with my family.

I travel because I’m curious by nature and I like to know how people live in other parts of the country and the world. But America is huge and it’s easy to get lulled into the notion that you have to leave the country in order to experience another culture. Within an hour of arriving in Kentucky last week, I was reminded of how very wrong that assumption is.

Owensboro is only 360 miles due south from my home in suburban Chicago, but the people who live there inhabit a very different world than the one I live in. In Evanston, my adopted hometown, people with extensive record collections and cars made in Scandinavia pay $4 for fancy cups of coffee and $3 for croissants at the weekly farmers market and shell out big bucks for organic treats at either of two Whole Foods locations that are only a half- mile apart along Evanston’s Chicago Avenue.



In Owensboro, people who get their groceries at Wal-Mart and drive pickup trucks can hurl a dead animal onto their trucks and bring it over to the Old Hickory BBQ restaurant, where the good people who run the place have been hickory-smoking meats since 1918. I know we were in a very different place from listening to the rush hour traffic report on the radio: the only traffic tie-up involved a deer carcass.

old hickory bbq in owensboro kentuckyOld Hickory BBQ was our first stop in the state after spending much of the day driving south from Chicago and it was a perfect introduction to one of America’s most distinctive, and for my taste, interesting states. Coming from Chicago, where you have to clear out your 401k to get a sandwich in some places, everything on the menu appeared to be ridiculously cheap- sandwiches were around $4 and platters including two sides were about $8. The place was moderately full but if it were transported to Chicago with the same prices, there would be a 9-hour wait to get in.

Kentucky’s BBQ specialty is mutton but I was most interested in the burgoo, a stew native to the region that is usually mutton-based. I went up to the take out counter, where many of the BBQ specialties are on display, and Jordan, one of the kitchen staffers, gave me a taste and offered to show me the restaurant smokehouse after our meal (see video below).


I loved the burgoo and everything else I tried and was elated when the bill came. $22 for our family of four, or less than we sometimes spend at McDonald’s. And as soon as I stepped into the smokehouse, I was overcome by the glorious smell of smoking meat. Jordan yanked open one of the smoke chambers and gave us a little tour of the meats people had brought in for 24 hour smoke sessions.

“Here are some pork butts,” he said. “Over there we’ve got some deer hind quarters.”

He said that he’d seen people bring in just about every type of animal you could imagine: squirrel, possum, porcupine, raccoons, frogs, and goats among others. And he confirmed my suspicion that Owensboro wasn’t much of a hotbed for vegetarians. I’m not a hunter and I tend to limit my meat intake but I would have loved to have strung up a hammock in the smokehouse and just enjoyed the seductive smell of grilled meats for hours.

The following night, while staying in a cheap motel in Beaver Dam, forty minutes southeast of Owensboro, and I got another taste of the hunting culture. The hotel’s free breakfast starts at 4:45 A.M. to accommodate the hunters, who filled the place to capacity on the first Saturday night of the deer-hunting season. It turns out that Kentucky has a huge deer population and hunters converge on the state from far and wide. We heard them chattering excitedly in the hotel corridor at 4:15 A.M.

Despite the sleep interruption, we didn’t emerge for breakfast around 9 A.M and the breakfast room was empty until a camouflaged foursome came in and began filling up on biscuits and gravy.

“Seems like you guys are the only hunters who slept in,” I said to a bleary eyed young man with a hunters knife hanging in a long sheath from his belt.

“Oh no,” he replied. “We were down here right at 4:45. We went out hunting and we’re back for our second breakfast now.”

“Did you get any deer?” I asked.

“I saw one,” he said. “But she was too young. I just couldn’t do it.”

The young man explained that deer hunters, like photographers, need to be out at dusk and dawn to stalk their prey. I asked him a whole host of dumb questions that anyone who grew up in Kentucky would already know the answer to, but then was able to show off a little of my own newfound knowledge as well.

“You know,” I said. “There’s a place in Owensboro that’ll smoke a porcupine for just five bucks.”

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

5 Alternatives To Fireworks This (Very Dry) Fourth of July

wildfireIt’s hard to imagine the Fourth of July without fireworks, but for drought- and fire-stricken regions like Colorado, that’s the way it’s going to be this year. If you happen to be living or traveling in a no-fireworks zone, don’t despair. There are still ways to celebrate our nation’s birth without setting it ablaze.

Since I’m in Colorado right now, I brainstormed with a group of rangers at Boulder’s Chautauqua Park (which is adjacent to the now 90%-contained Flagstaff Mountain blaze). Our ideas, below:

1. Organize a block party

2. Go to a laser show (or hold your own; those PowerPoint things are for more than just entertaining cats)

3. Have a picnic or barbecue and stargaze

4. Go to a concert in a park or other outdoor venue

5. Go camping, minus the open fire

[Photo credit: Flickr user H Dragon]

The Stop, Drop and Role Technique for Fire Safety

Grilling Around The Globe: A Memorial Day Photo Tribute

Where there’s smoke, there’s barbecue – and there’s no better time than Memorial Day to light that grill. This year, instead of the same old, same old post on burgers, food safety and how not to burn the patio down, I thought I’d offer a photo tribute to grilling in all of its glorious permutations around the globe.

I confess to taking some liberties, and adding a few methods that don’t call for an open flame. The Hawaiian imu is a familiar site to luau lovers; it’s a pit filled with hot rocks that effectively roasts the food (in this instance, pork). The curanto from the Chilean archipelago of Chiloe is also Polynesian in origin (hailing from Easter Island, or Rapa Nui) and operates on the same principle, but also includes shellfish and potato cakes called milcao and chapaleles. Spit-roasted suckling pig, whether it’s Filipino lechon or Cajun cochon de lait, by any other name would taste as succulent.

Argentina remains the indisputable holy grail of grilling but plenty of other countries utilize fire –indirectly or not – to cook food, including Japan, Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam and Australia. Enjoy the slideshow and don’t forget to wipe your mouth.

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