Monday, May 18, 2009

Picnic essentials

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a FAN of the picnic. I LOVE picnics... So I was happy to do a Check It Off article for the San Francisco Chronicle's Home and Garden section last Sunday centered on ideas for a perfect picnic.
A good picnic basket: There are lots of cute baskets out there, but for sheer practical sturdiness, Reisenthel's market basket holds everything from plates and cups to a whole roasted chicken. And when you're not picnicking, use it for shopping at the farmer's market. $40 at Sur la Table,

Tablecloth: It's not only a civilized addition to a picnic, it can also be a practical one, helping to cover a dusty table and keep splinters at bay. Fabric shops like San Francisco's Satin Moon (32 Clement St., 668-1623) often have lengths of inexpensive remnant fabrics that can easily double as a cheerful table covering.

Silverware: Any outing feels more genteel if you pack silverware instead of plastic sporks. Same goes for glasses and plates.

Wire-bale canning jars: With a wire clamp that firmly closes the top, canning jars are good reusable containers for relishes and condiments or even sides like macaroni salad or cold soup. The wide-mouth makes it easy to spoon the contents out and the rubber ring helps keep the jar from leaking. $3-$6 at Sur la Table,

Read the rest at the SF Chronicle site.

Of course, poll ten people and you're likely to get ten different ideas of what is essential to a perfect picnic. I tried definitely to focus less on food items, because that kind of stuff falls more under the Food & Wine heading, plus I think the Chronicle has already had lots of great features with yummy recipe ideas in the past.

I thought it was interesting, though, that there were a few comments about the idea of the glass jars. Readers objected to hauling around heavy glassware-- why not use those disposable plastic containers from Ziploc or the Glad Family of Products? After all, they're lighter, reusable and recyclable.

I've used them for a long time myself, because, let's face it, they're cheap, and if you leave them behind by accident, you don't really care. I've even saved the plastic containers that Chinese or Indian takeout food comes in, and reused them because those pint and quart containers are a great convenient size. But when I started this piece (and an upcoming one on storing pantry items), I read a lot more about storing foods in plastic and even though the FDA has approved the use of Bisphenol A or BPA in food grade plastics, there's a body of evidence to suggest that it leaches out of plastics (especially when heated) in unhealthy levels.

If you're like me-- I read about something like High Fructose Corn Syrup and I go rampaging through the house looking for everything with HFCS in it-- you'll head for your cabinet and start flipping over your plastic containers to find out what number plastics are used in the Glad Family of Products. On the bottom of any piece of plastic is a little triangle with the Resin ID number printed on it, telling you what category of plastic you're holding. BPA is commonly found in #3 (PVC), #7 (a variety but notably polycarbonate or Lexan) plastics.

"Well, phew!" you say, after checking your Glad Product, "It's #5 (Polypropylene) and not made with BPAs. Dodged that bullet. I guess we're okay!"

Not so fast. Now it comes out that #5--which you find in everything from Rubbermaid to long underwear--may be leaching other kinds of chemicals, called quaternary ammonium biocides and oleamide, in high enough levels that a research team in Canada had to stop a drug experiment because the chemicals in their containers were contaminating the results. Oleamides are found normally in sleep-deprived animals (including humans) and is thought to help induce sleep.

As a side note, #6 plastic (polystyrene or styrofoam) I try to avoid on the grounds that most recyclers won't take it, and it's not biodegradable -- I envision large flotillas made up of my styro coffee cups choking off a whale and I have fits.

That leaves you pretty much with #1 or #2 or #4 plastics, but now I'm exhausted with the effort of figuring out what plastics are okay and which are not. I'd rather just have some nice glass jars or a Corningware baker with silicone cover.

So we have a nice little oval Corningware gratin that I've been forcing My Omnivore to use for his lunches-- I pointed out that he could either microwave or use it in a toaster over which you can't do with a Glad Family Product--and that's ben just perfect for our purposes. And yes, I'm slowly ditching all the plastic we have and replacing it with Corningware bakers-- I'm a sucker for that "Oven to Table" bit-- and Pyrex storage sets.

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