The Best Table in Town

The stir-fry was delectable: tender morsels of beef with a medley of vegetables on a bed of perfectly cooked rice, all suffused in a rich sauce combining sweet and sour elements. But the highlight of that special dinner was the magnificent view: our table faced the calm waters of Port Phillip Bay. As we chatted amiably and finished off our meal with a selection of fresh seasonal fruit, the sun set on the distant horizon, its rays glimmering on the bay in a lightshow finale. Not a new kosher Chinese restaurant by the beach, but a simple takeaway meal on the St Kilda foreshore, sitting at, what I believe is, the best picnic table in town.

Picnics are synonymous with summer. Nothing whets the appetite like being outdoors, and nothing tastes better than meals eaten al fresco. No waiting for waiters, no din of diners, no clatter of cutlery. While the weather is warm and the days are long, we eat out─literally─as often as we can.

In order to get to and from the perfect picnic spot, a spot of exercise is required. Tables aren’t always an option. A couple of weeks ago we arranged with a few friends to meet at the Botanical Gardens. There are only a couple of clusters of tables and chairs, and where we wanted to meet, the tables were not available to BYO diners. No problem. One bench was dragged along the lawn to face another, a tartan blanket draped on the ground between them, and a picnic spot for eight was created. In our alcove, surrounded by trees and with a view of the lake, we munched on our sandwiches and salads. We then passed around crackers and homemade biscuits to nibble on, as the ubiquitous mozzies started nibbling at our ankles. Time for another walk and a parting of ways.

I probably inherited my love of the outdoors from my mother. As a child growing up in Cracow, Poland, her family lived in an apartment, and she loved to be taken to the nearby park where she picked chestnuts or marvelled at the tall trees that reached up to the sky. When her family escaped Cracow on her seventh birthday, only a few days before Germany invaded Poland, they ended up in a detention camp on the outskirts of Siberia. My young mother ventured into the forest to forage for mushrooms and berries to add to the family’s meagre rations.

I know nothing about picking wild mushrooms but have become an expert at picking a picnic table and keeping meals simple. There are probably gourmet kosher hampers available from caterers and infinite recipes for picnic fare, but I prefer whatever’s-in-the-fridge salads and sandwiches. My easy deli sandwiches could pass muster─but sometimes passing on the mustard─at any New York kosher deli for variety if not height; the number of layers of their plated pastrami-on-rye towers could rival the storeys of Empire State. Minimal preparation and minimal cleaning up─music to my ears, a counterpoint to the beat of the cicadas, birdsong in the trees, and the rhythm of the sea. And when the fridge is looking a bit like old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, we take advantage of Melbourne’s kosher takeaways of all stripes.

The takeaway/picnic combo became de rigueur in recent years when the strictures of Covid lockdowns were loosened, and Melburnians could meet friends or family in a public outdoor setting and only up to a specific number, of course. Our family even had a Purim seudah or feast, when a butterfly, a pirate and an astronaut joined our small party, and a Shabbat meal in nearby parks. I shared the grandchildren’s joy celebrating these special festive meals under the sky; others felt a bit out of their comfort zone but were soon won over by the laughter and the joy of it all. Picnics tick all the boxes: fresh air, friends, family and freedom.

With Tu Bishvat only a few days away, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the New Year of the Trees than partaking in a fruity festive meal outdoors, surrounded by trees, the stars of the festival. Olives, grapes, dates, pomegranates and figs─full of the flavours of Israel and brimming with significance and symbolism.

All these thoughts about food, and it’s nearly time to make tonight’s dinner. Another glorious picnic day. Meats in the fridge, salad greens from the garden, fresh bread from Carlisle Street, chilled drinks and fruit. Easy! Then heading to the best table in town, in time for the sound and light of sunset.

About the Author
Pauline Schwarcz is a freelance writer with a background in genealogy. Formerly a health professional, she enjoys writing about family history and her reflections on life. Pauline was born and lives in Melbourne and is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.