One of my favorite memories from nearly three years spent in Paris was picnicking. For a culture whose twin obsessions are food and people watching, it is no wonder that this pastime has become a cultural staple: the picnic provides an excellent opportunity to indulge in both. On Saturdays and Sundays in spring and summer, the banks of the Seine and the city’s parks are converted into a lively scene, providing some consolation to city-bound Parisians who maybe would rather be sitting seaside in a Mediterranean town.
A picnic in France doesn’t need to be a formal affair. Thanks to their outstanding outdoor markets, one can pull together an impromptu spread quite easily–fruit, cheese and paté are perennial favorites. Slathered on a torn off piece of just-baked baguette, it is hard to think of a simpler satisfaction.
While they are not sticklers about the specific contents of the picnic basket, they are strict about making the most of a beautiful day by spending at least some of it outside, preferably with other people, ideally with food. On the first sunny days of the year, it is common to hear people say “Il faut profiter” to each other, which means essentially “you must take advantage.” The first time someone said this to me, I was tickled by the seriousness of the statement.
Another thing about French meals is that people hardly ever eat alone. For a while, I worked as a stringer at TIME Magazine’s Paris bureau, which was stressful in the way that publications are–deadlines, last minute story changes, breaking news to be covered. Even in this unpredictable environment, the whole office (about five of us) would break for an hour-long lunch every single day. We’d eat one or two courses (sometimes with dessert) in the main cafeteria, followed by espresso and, for some people, cigarettes.
Not all of these customs translate to life in New York but I’ve found it easy enough to recreate a bit of Bois de Boulogne in Brooklyn by having the occasional picnic. I take a page from the Parisians and follow an “anything goes” approach when it comes to putting together the menu. The one thing to keep in mind is how temperature and travel will affect the dish–a runny camembert, for example, is probably not the best thing for a hot day.