Picnics for Penny Pinchers


My friend Jimmy’s idea of the perfect picnic hasn’t changed in 30 years. For him, it’s a jug of wine, a loaf of bread&emdash;and maybe a little salami to boot.

Original? Perhaps not. But I found out the hard way that when it comes to penny-wise picnics, Jimmy had already written the book.

Had I known how financially foolproof his tactics were, I would have followed his rules from the start. But with a budget of $20, a gourmet picnic for two sounded so deceivingly simple that I gaily trotted off to one of the area’s most exclusive delis, ordered sandwiches and side salads and a Champagne split, and quickly rang up a total of nearly $28&emdash;hardly heart-attack-worthy for the average Joe, but lethal when your name is The Dollar-Wise Gourmet.

It may surprise you to know that it wasn’t the booze that did me in, but the salads. Those little salads&emdash;those tempting tricolor tortellinis and provocatively paprika’d potatoes that shamelessly seduce from behind the glass&emdash;are not only the speediest path to blowing your picnic budget, but the sneakiest. Though it is embarrassing to admit, The Dollar-Wise Gourmet got tripped up by those devil salads, and I’m here to warn you not to make the same mistake.

With that in mind, here are a few rules for a fun and frugal food frolic out of doors:

Rule No. 1: When prices aren’t posted&emdash;common policy, I discovered, when it comes to side dishes&emdash;swallow your pride and just ask. You may feel tacky by repeatedly asking, How much is this one? And this one? And this? Still, it’s better to be momentarily mortified than permanently penniless, I say.

Rule No. 2:
Deviate from the standard sandwiches-and-salads routine by taking a page out of Jimmy’s book. Even when purchased from an upscale shop, a baguette, salami and cheese is satisfying and fun finger food&emdash;and it won’t break the bank.

So how did I make out when I wasn’t messing up? At David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods (at Pavilions in Sacramento), I scored two sumptuous sandwiches (one roast pork, one Mendocino Masterpiece with smoked turkey and zippy mustard), potato chips, a huge white-chocolate chip macadamia cookie and a split of Champagne for only $19.16. True, the potato chips were garden-variety Lays&emdash;hardly gourmet&emdash;but you can’t call it failure when you find a bottle of bubbly at David Berkley for $3.99.

Next stop: Corti Brothers (5810 Folsom Blvd. in Sacramento), where I put Jimmy’s rules to the test. You wouldn’t believe the feast I put together for only $18.58: a fresh sourdough baguette from a Napa Valley bakery; delicious dry salami, thickly sliced for snacking; a wedge of Danish fontina cheese; Mediterranean olives (lovely and only $2.28 for a small container); a magnificent macaroni salad ($2.11, small); red seedless grapes; Bahlsen biscuit cookies; and a small bottle of Portuguese wine ($3.99). My picnic for two suddenly suited a picnic for four&emdash;and I was still under budget.

OK, so I forgot to buy the Wash’n Dris. But what’s a picnic without sticky fingers?