photo credit: Wikipedia cc
I keep a picnic blanket ready to go, next to our garage door. It was a gift given to me when my first daughter was born. It has the comforting pattern of quilted diamonds on one solid apple green side, and blue, yellow and white stripes on the other. With its very modern and nautical lines, it seemed an odd choice of a gift for a newborn baby girl, looking out of place among the pink clothes, bibs, and tiny little socks that were festooned upon me. But I ended up using it frequently, finding it a handy place to rest a sleepy baby when we were outdoors. And unlike those other gifts, it has neither been outgrown nor destroyed by overuse.
Most people associate picnics with lazy summer days spent basking in the warmth of the sun. But I live in San Francisco, and if you’ve been to this magical city in the summer, you’ll wonder just where I am laying down that picnic blanket. Because summer is our coldest season. This is a sad truth I am still getting used to after 15 years living here. When the rest of the country is complaining of summer heat waves , I wake up and need to put on layers– sometimes including a turtleneck sweater or even a light down jacket– as I face the grey, windy, misty-almost-rainy sky. If you want to know who the tourists are, it’s easy– they are the ones wearing shorts and sandals, reasonable summer wear anywhere else– topped with a new fleece jacket emblazoned with “San Francisco” across the front, bought so they don’t freeze to death.
Why is San Francisco so foggy? It starts with water. The city is bordered on three sides by water, framed by the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay. In summer months, the temperatures of surrounding inland cities, like everywhere else, can get very hot. Hot land juxtaposed next to cold water creates what is known as a marine layer, and the fog that we are familiar with. The San Francisco fog is especially thick because the waters off our coast are cooled by frigid waters from Canada, brought down by the California Current of the Pacific Ocean, and further cooled by wind patterns that cause “upwelling” or churning up of deeper (and even colder) water. You can get used to the cold and foggy weather that this produces, but it requires you to make adjustments to your plans.
What sort of adjustments? Simply said, this means getting out of the city if you want to enjoy a warm and sunny summer day. Thankfully, all you need to do to find more typical summer weather is to drive in any direction, North, South, or East (not West– that’s the Pacific Ocean), maybe even 10 minutes outside of the city, and you’ll find Summer. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and onwards towards Wine Country, across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and beyond, or just past the Bay down to the Peninsula, and it’s literally as if that big picnic blanket of fog has been lifted. The temperature on your car thermometer will shoot up by 20 degrees within minutes. So this is our weekend ritual in the three months that everyone else calls summer: we pack a picnic, pick a direction, and get into the car and search for the warmth of the sun.
We’re usually in a hurry to warm up, so this is an unfussy ritual. We head down to the farmer’s market, stock up on sweet, local fruits and vegetables to prepare into simple salads, grab a loaf of crusty bread, and some cheese. After some very quick prep back at home, these are all quickly thrown into our simple picnic basket, which is actually an insulated shoulder bag these days. Frozen bottles of water serve as ice packs until it’s time to eat. I usually pack several salads in stackable plastic containers to stow in our picnic basket/bag, some savory and some sweet. These salads are always a refreshing a thirst quenching addition to balance out the saltiness of the baguette, cheese and pate or salami that form the basis of our easy picnics. My favorite picnic salads bridge the line between sweet and savory. Unlike green salads, a cucumber or fruit-based salad only improves with time. The sweet juices are released slowly, making a sweet-savory sauce to dip your bread into, or even drink straight from the container, if nobody’s watching.
The flavors of these salads are bright enough to face the San Francisco fog, but I’ll still be packing mine to go, in my quest for some sunshine. The colors of that apple green picnic blanket that I’ll bring along are still vibrant, even though my baby girl is turning 11. Unlike me, she’s a San Francisco native, and a little fog doesn’t bother her.
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Escape from San Francisco Picnic:
A Trio of Sassy Salads to Brighten Your Day
These are some of the simplest recipes I make, because who wants to be fussy when you have a picnic to get to?
lemony cucumber salad
A squeeze of lemon, a few drops of olive oil and a grind of coarse sea salt is all you need to bring out the natural sweetness and juciness of cucumbers. Peel and seed, if necessary, your favorite cucumber (I like English cucumbers, but farm-fresh kirbies make me happy, too). Slice into discs, then toss with a squeeze of lemon juice, flavorful olive oil, and salt to taste.
prosciutto e melone
The Italian classic. Peel and seed a ripe cantaloupe and cut into wedges. Wrap a piece of prosciutto around each wedge. This is a symphony of flavors- salty and sweet, and textures- toothsome and tender.
savory nectarine and tomato salad with a kick
This is the surprising combination of this sweet stone fruit with tomato (which, don’t forget, is also a fruit) and the sharp bite of red onion slivers, chili pepper, cilantro, and lime. Slice your nectarine and tomato into equal sized wedges, and add red pepper flakes, salt, fine slivers of red onion and finely minced cilantro to taste. Toss with freshly squeezed lime juice.
Accompaniments: crusty baguette, cheese (favorites include goat cheese or Brie), paté, ham or salami, olives, and a bottle of California red wine. I like to pack a Swiss army knife– for the cork screw and blades. And of course, don’t forget your favorite picnic blanket.
This is my contribution to #LetsLunch, a monthly virtual potluck on Twitter. This month’s theme is “too hot to cook” and is hosted by Grace at HapaMama.com, where you can find a complete listing of this month’s #LetsLunch posts. I previously published a version of this post on Open Salon.