Despite the sand and the occasional sand fly, changing tides and baking sun, eating at the beach can be a picnic.
To serve a decent meal at the shore requires a dash of panache and more than a dash of preparation. Whether your menu is fried chicken and lemonade or caviar and vodka, the first ingredient for a successful beach picnic is food safety.
Get your consumables to the beach before they are contaminated by uninvited pathogens--germs that thrive and multiply when foods languish at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember the two-hour rule: Fresh-cooked food should never sit more than two hours, and until served, all foods should be kept covered. Flies carry more germs on their sticky feet than there are grains of sand in the sea.
To keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, there is ice (or nontoxic blue freezer packs) for packing, insulated covered-dish sets and Thermoses for holding, and Igloo's Wheelie Cool and other rolling ice chests for carting your meal to the perfect seaside picnic site.
Although some picnic hosts prefer to serve from the flat tops of their big coolers, others lay out a weighted tablecloth or Williams-Sonoma handled picnic blanket over the sand. Such al fresco "tables" are cozy--even romantic, and, if properly set, can be a feast for the eyes. (If it's a picnic for one, consider the new folding beach chair with built-in cooler beneath the seat from Pasadena's new travel gear store, Expedition: Earth.)
In choosing your tableware, whether plastic or paper, select colors that are as bright as beach balls. Pack plenty of napkins for carefree clean-up and a minimum of potentially offensive finger-licking. Use a clean plastic pail or sandcastle mold as a centerpiece and fill it with flowers brought from home and kept fresh in the top of your cooler.
As for the food, it could be spicy cold shrimp with crudites, pita and hummus, or poached salmon with rice. But ask a cook for a classic American picnic menu and you will get a meal that includes some version of the following: cold chicken (fried, broiled or barbecued), hearty sandwiches (sans mayonnaise, if possible); chips (vinegar and salt potato chips taste good with sea spray); something sour--pickles or a piquant cole slaw; and something sweet--watermelon, brownies, oatmeal cookies or cupcakes dusted with powdered sugar.
On teetotaling beaches, lemonade or iced tea--infused with fruit flavors like peach or raspberry--are good for washing down a beach meal and should be kept well chilled and in good supply.
If you have a more exotic pique-nique in mind and have the resources to finance it, Andreas Nieto, the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel's executive chef and pique-niquer extraordinaire, suggests packing a small cooler, a sealed glass jar of Beluga or Ossetra caviar, sour cream and a flask with "a small sampling" of flavored vodka.
"Pack everything with ice all around and, as the ice melts, the cooler will actually get colder," says Nieto. "Bring along some toasted white bread cut in triangles with the crusts removed and you'll have a refreshing romantic delicacy."