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‘Trunk Picnics’ Will Save Your Summer

Packing a picnic and hitting the road is more fun than eating another dry chicken breast in front of the TV for the thousandth time, I guarantee it

Since the pandemic started, I’ve honestly felt like keeping indoors, for the most part, has been totally doable. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of quality time (like, a lot a lot) with Ari, my girlfriend; I’ve been able to take up my favorite pastime, lounging, because what else is there to do; I’ve caught up on loads of TV shows, both ones I’ve seen before and those that have been recommended to me through the years; and I’ve been able to practice my culinary skills — thanks to having made nearly every breakfast, lunch and dinner for two people for three-and-a-half months.

You could say that I’ve really settled into my little routine: I wake up, I work, I finish work, I make dinner, Ari and I watch some TV and then we go to sleep. Sure, as quarantine has dragged into July (and definitely soon-to-be August), it’s started to feel like my routine has gotten a little monotonous. But in times of great upheaval, isn’t stability a good thing?!?!

Ah, who the fuck am I kidding? 

I need to get out of the house or else I’m going to go completely fucking insane.

The Problem: Quarantine is a prison of monotony.

The Potential Solution: “Trunk picnics.” 

No, don’t laugh — hear me out. The idea was inspired by two extremely minor recent events: The first was a fight I had with Ari about the increasingly complex recipes I was making for dinner, and how many dishes there were to clean afterward. The second was the rare trip out for dinner, when Ari and I decided to hit up what has quickly become the hottest place for a burger in L.A. — Silver Lake’s Burgers Never Say Die — and ate our delicious meal (burgers, fries, the works) out of the trunk of my car. It was a blast, and what I loved about it was the chance to have something different than our apartment in our field of vision as we ate across from each other. 

Me, mid-fry.

You’re probably asking yourself what the two have to do with one another — as well as with my picnic idea? Well, the fight with Ari made me realize that maybe I was overdoing it a bit with dinner — I think I was going through five to six mise en place bowls a night — and the dishes (and kitchen smells) added up. I love making dinner because frankly, it’s some of the most creative work I’ll do all day, but I also needed to compromise and make some “normal” food, too. 

With a trunk picnic — a thing I invented (not really) around midnight after our fight — I could combine both: Easy-to-make (and eat) meals that I still get to plan and cook to satisfy my creative urges, but eaten in and around the most beautiful parts of L.A., a constant change of scenery to further break up the monotony.

Yeah, But About That Burger…?: If you’re in the L.A. area, run, don’t walk, to Burgers Never Say Die. They’re smash burgers, which I realize are kinda played out at this point, but they’re honestly the best version of a smash burger, like a gourmet Quarter Pounder. The fries also harken back to McDonald’s. Here’s a picture of what I’m talking about:

If you’re quietly looking at that and thinking “fuck me up” while drool collects in the corner of your mouth, you’ve got the right idea.

The Best Thing I Made at Home Prior to Being Told I Was Befouling Too Many Bowls: This salt and pepper fish was fun to make — and delicious. This recreation of Din Tai Fung’s Shanghai rice cakes was great, too (as well as the straw that broke Ari’s back). But my favorite dinner recently has been bowls of sausage, spinach and cannellini beans, quite possibly the least complex dish in my arsenal: 

2 cans of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 bag of spinach (seriously, can’t have too much)
1 pound of Italian sausage, removed from the casings

Cook the sausage in a deep skillet or dutch oven over medium high heat, breaking it up as you go. Once browned, add the drained beans and stir, coating them and warming them through. Dump the spinach in your skillet and cook until wilted. Serve.

Simple, delicious, cheap and complete with plenty of leftovers.

The Experience: The idea, in my head at least, was to replicate that first eating-out-of-the-back-of-my-car experience at Burgers Never Say Die. Namely, we’d find a nice place with an interesting view or good people watching, and then pop the trunk and eat on the bumper. 

The first picnic we opted for found us driving up and around the Hollywood Bowl to a lookout spot on Mulholland Drive with famous views of L.A.; the second took us to the beach just south of the Santa Monica Pier, the idea being that we’d catch a sunset just as we were chowing down. 

And everything was going to plan — until we realized that there’s more to a successful picnic than where to go, and what to eat.

5 Things Every Picnicker Should Know: 

  1. Check first to see what’s even open. Our trip to the Hollywood Bowl Lookout was cut short when we got there and discovered that the State of California had deemed the location a COVID hazard, and closed the gates. We had to scramble to find another suitable lookout spot on Mulholland Drive, and we had to do so quickly to get there by sunset. 
  2. Realize that there are other people with the same idea. We did manage to find a different lookout for our picnic, but there were 20 people already there. So we were forced out of our trunk and onto a nearby rock — with people still all around us. At least our view was cool.
  3. You’re gonna need more napkins than you realize. Also, invest in some picnic-y plates and stuff. We used our normal bowls and almost had an accident when the shrimp salad we made nearly toppled in transit because we didn’t have a top that fit for the bowl. Tupperware works, if you don’t mind the plastic-y taste it can impart.
  4. Pick a dish that doesn’t require much assembly. We made this mistake when we decided to make chicken burgers to take to the beach. Burgers are the kind of thing you need to assemble right before you eat them, otherwise they get soggy. We ended up trying to assemble them without extra napkins or the plates we forgot — and in gale force beach winds to boot. Oh yeah…
  5. Watch out for significant wind. Self-explanatory. But you try eating with sand in your face.
Shrimp salad and some garlic bread with people all around us. Super casual.

And the Award for Best Food to Eat On Any Picnic, Let Alone a Trunk Picnic: There’s a reason pasta salad is so popular at parks around the country come lunchtime: It’s packaged in a single container and it doesn’t lose its je ne sais quoi just because you took it off the grill pan, or out of the fridge for the 30 minutes it takes to go from your home to wherever you’re picnicking. 

I really wanted to make this one, but it was more work than we wanted to do:

The Result: In theory, the trunk picnic idea is sound. Sure, we didn’t really have the same experience as we did on that fateful day at Burgers Never Say Die, and sure, we never were actually able to eat out of the trunk. But how could we? Those burgers and that evening was too perfect a location/weather/food combination to ever be matched. Plus, sorry, but why would we eat in the back of our car at the beach when the beach has way better views?

Back, though, to the theory itself. There’s definitely some there there. For one, eating anywhere outdoors where you can take in your surroundings is exceedingly nice. Our perch atop Mulholland Drive, afforded us a view of Burbank, Universal City and much of the rest of the Valley — a far more interesting scene than what I take in from the stools in my kitchen. And again, we still got to make a meal that forced us to think simply and creatively about what would keep well and be easy to transfer, even if we didn’t get it 100 percent right.

This could all be yours one day, m’ boy.

There are definitely some logistical challenges to taking your food on the road, not the least of which is that dinner takes far longer than it would at home, when you account for transit. But it’s an idea that I hope we can continue to try to perfect, because at a time when we’re all locked in our homes with no restaurants or friends to go to or see, a quick trip around town for dinner feels a lot like a micro vacation.

And when all the days blend together, that’s more than good enough for me.