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The Last Picnic : Spontaneous Consumption : Party: In the Pacific Northwest, where summer may last only a week, they've learned to put their beach parties together in a hurry.

September 02, 1993|SCHUYLER INGLE

SEATTLE — A couple of weeks ago, summer came and went in about five days. Sometimes it's like that up here. Certain habits develop as a consequence. One lives and learns. To plan ahead is to take one's chances; to act with complete spontaneity affords one opportunities that come and go like particles in a cloud chamber. Consider the picnic.

After, oh, about eight months of rain, drizzle and that gray overcast that can hang on this city like a pot lid, it hit 97 degrees. It was clear. Residents were reminded that an enormous dormant volcano sits only a few miles to the southeast. The next day, a Thursday I believe, the temperature had dropped by about 15 degrees, never to recover. Tomatoes on the vine that had started showing a bit of blush stopped in their tracks and punched their time cards for the year as though satisfied with a future of green relish rather than red salsa. If there was to be a picnic, in other words, the time was ripe.

So, a flurry of phone calls to all manner of workplaces late in the day developed into a picnic at Golden Gardens, a sandy beach at the north end of the city on Puget Sound. Golden Gardens faces west. We would revel in the setting of the sun and an evening without benefit of sweaters. In summer the sun sets late in Seattle. Twilight lasts until 9 or so.

Marianne has one of those office jobs that tends to end at 5, on the dot. She had time to get home and bake a peach-and-blueberry cobbler. Harry met her at the beach lugging a cold jug of white wine and a pint of seaweed salad, a spicy Japanese bit of Day-Glo green delightfulness. Lynn and Mike hauled in cold beer and a spicy melon salad with grilled shrimp, something some chef in the Southwest thought up one afternoon. Michelle brought potato salad leftovers and half a cold roast chicken. Kai brought cookies and a kite. Joe and Cheryl brought salmon fillets marinated in kasu , which is sake lees, an item available in certain fish markets. They knew me well enough to know I would have some kind of grill on hand.

It's one of those small, self-contained gas grills about the size of a portable typewriter. Part of Pacific Northwest picnic spontaneity includes having appropriate technology on hand. Lugging a self-contained gas grill from parking lot to beach leaves one hand free to lug a small cooler. Lugging a small charcoal grill and a bag of charcoal means two trips, and the whole point here is to have fun, not a workout.

The small cooler contained marinated strips of New York steak, tortillas, salsa, grated cheese, brownies and Irish whiskey. I have somehow come to believe there's little point in eating chocolate unless you can chase the muck out of your mouth with Irish whiskey. Besides which, there's nothing quite like standing in cold ocean water after a glorious meal with one arm around the shoulders of an attractive kite-flying woman, using the free hand to tip the bottle up to her slightly parted lips. Yes, well.

But of the steak and the marinade and the potential of spills in the car and sand in the food . . . I have solved the problem with an industrial-strength home-model Cryovac pump, an Italian blessing. One simply makes the bag, pours in the steak and marinade, sucks and seals--all is self-contained and marinating at a blistering rate, an important feature for the spontaneous picnic.

Old blankets, a canvas tarp, an armful of firewood carried to the beach from the back of a car, a folding chair or two, paper plates and cups, plastic forks, a roll of paper towels, a jug of cold mineral water: Such are the things of which picnics are made.

But mostly, I must say, it is the people and the city. We have all worked all day, as people do in most cities. And we have suffered a summer without summer, as most people don't suffer in most cities. But Seattle forgives a little last-minute revelry by having everything in easy reach, the necessary markets and the beach itself. Hardly an hour has passed between the punching of the time clock and the wiggling of toes in the sand. And when Seattle comes through with good weather, it is like a cold wash rag on a fevered brow: The end of the day slides down behind the full stretch of the Olympic Mountains, and with it, any workaday weariness of the spirit.

We laugh too loud at gentle jokes and sip at cold wine. Some start their meal with brownies and cobbler. Joe wanders on the beach with the bowl of potato salad in one hand, his fork in the other until someone yells for their turn. There's a debate about whether we should grill the steak before or after the salmon, and then we decide that salmon that tastes like steak is better than the obverse. Hot meat juices and salsa roll down chins and off points of elbows, which is why a roll of paper towels is on hand.

Twilight deepens. The small fire flickers. The sound of teen voices and boom boxes approaches, followed by the smell of Coppertone and the hormones of youth. Time to pack it in and wander down the beach to the parking lot, tipping back the last of the bottle, bidding summer adieu.

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