A birthday in a basket

One of the undeniable truths of the world is that time moves onwards. The clock ticks, the planets move, and that unstoppable march from past to future continues. As part of this constant movement, every now and then this rock we stand on completes yet another revolution of the sun, and you get nominally older.

Yes, I’m talking about birthdays, because I just had one. I have been on this planet for 30 trips around the sun. Due to the human race’s innate preference for round numbers, many people consider to be a moment of significance.

I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, though. The move from twenty-something into thirty-something doesn’t seem to come with any real change, and I can think of better options for checking where you are on your life plan. (For the record, my life plan is probably lost behind a fridge somewhere). For me, it’s just another birthday.

But that’s still a good reason to party.

Over the years I have celebrated my birthday in many different ways. House parties and pub nights, all with good friends and many drinks have generally been the way to go, with or without karaoke. The five-hour multi-course dinner for 7 people in the wine room of one of my favourite Canberra restaurants was a particularly memorable way to spend my 27th year.

This year, though, I had something that I haven’t had before. This time, my birthday was during spring. This made the party idea obvious for me. It was time for a picnic.

I love a good picnic. There’s something delightful about sitting outside in the sun, eating and drinking, maybe while someone plays guitar. Everyone just seems to be relaxed and happy on a picnic, provided the flies and mozzies aren’t too bad (though that’s not as much of a problem here as it can be back home).

There are a lot of considerations when picnicking, such as how glam you want to go. Some people go all out with fine china and those dainty tower stands that you put cupcakes on, basically just taking an afternoon tea set and putting it on the ground. That is all fine, and it can look beautiful, but it is also a lot of effort. Plus you sometimes feel like you’re sitting on a giant doily, and who really wants that?

No, for me a picnic is best at the simple end. A blanket is good, though not totally necessary if the grass is dry, but that’s about as fancy as I will go when it comes to décor. I don’t spend too much time on making things pretty. I’m much more interested in the food.

There are a few rules for picnic food. Firstly, it needs to be eaten easily with your hands, because you don’t want to walk away from the park with sauce all over your shirt. Small, compact bites that you can pick up and eat without really needing to worry about serviettes are by far the best, which is why sandwiches and cold pies are so successful.

I like to go with sandwiches. There is something about putting food inside bread that makes it better. I remember as a child, sitting down at the beach with a soft white roll filled with ham and salad, or salami and cheese. Simple, clean and easy, it’s perfect for eating outside.

These days I lean towards chicken sandwiches in particular, and my chicken sandwiches are rightly celebrated. They are always fairly simple, and a variation of a theme. A chicken salad, made with chicken, mayonnaise, some type of onion, some type of nut, and some other flavour, in classic white bread. But there are some secrets to making them perfect.

Firstly, it’s all about the quality of the chicken. Buy a whole chicken, preferably organic (they taste better) from somewhere you trust. Then poach it whole to keep it moist, and strip the thing. Don’t forget all the little bits of meat near the bone. They’re the best part. The other secret is even easier: use Japanese mayonnaise. I don’t know what it is, but it just makes things better. It’s probably the MSG.

For my birthday I went for French style chicken sandwiches, with caramelised onion, slivered almonds and thyme. They were unquestionably excellent. We are talking the sort of sandwiches that make people say, “Damn, those are amazing sandwiches”.

With a cold cocktail in hand, sun above, grass below and friends around, anything can taste good. But with sandwiches like that? It makes for a very happy birthday.