Planning and Packing the Perfect Picnic
British children’s author Edith Blyton has published dozens of books about famously exploratory kids who set out in each story armed with maps, flashlights, satchels of sandwiches, and a plentiful supply of ginger-beer. They spend their summers hiking and biking, camping and exploring by themselves, invariably falling into adventure, and always remarking how even ordinary food tastes so much better out of doors. That is the dreamy draw of any picnic, isn’t it?
But turning back to reality, the fact remains there are just so many things you can’t predict about any picnic. The weather, for starters. Soggy bottoms, let alone soggy sandwiches, are bucolic buzzkills, for sure. And try as you might, you can’t really plan for how explosive the bug population buzzing around or climbing over your picnic spread might be at any given hour. Then there’s the welcoming nature of – well – nature. Short of cordoning it off with ominous police tape, can you really protect your perfect – but possibly no longer private – romantic spot by the bubbling brook in the public park?
But you can, in fact, control just what food goes into the basket on any given picnic day. And the burgeoning local food scene can help you hit the mark on all types of outdoorsy fare, whether you are going for a completely orchestrated meal or one that comes together as you breeze through the farmers’ market on an unexpectedly beautiful day.
As a seasoned picnicker myself, I maintain a repertoire of themes to suit the venue, the guest list, the peak of the seasonal harvest, and my schedule. Most contain two homemade items to show that I care, and a smattering of farmers’ market conveniences to demonstrate my support for the local food scene and my nod to the fact that producers who specialize in – whether it be growing tomatoes or making pies – can do it better than I can.
The English Countryside
My purchased items for this outing include my plaid wool picnic blanket aptly lined with a waterproof underside, my wicker basket, a growler of local beer, and an assortment of meat hand pies (called Cornish pasties in the UK). My homespun items for this meal are comprised of a mustardy Indian pickle to run with the pies and lavender shortbread accompanied by sliced strawberries and cream shaken until it’s whipped right there on the spot.
The Rough and Tumble
The food in this lightweight cooler (often a backpack) is selected and packed to endure a very rocky road to a remote picnic venue and always includes an enticing treat to be eaten in route, thereby warding off an inevitable hangry mutiny from the picnickers walking long and hard to find the perfect spot to sit and dine in full. The snack is a homemade cranberry, pumpkin seed and seaweed power bar that packs plenty of protein and local flavor. The shaved root vegetable salad travels well and is topped with cold grilled beef, both with an Asian flare, and are packed in single serving jars. Purchased crusty rolls help fill any hollow legs emptied by the trek and raspberries and eco-friendly chocolate bars cap off the trail break.
The Sophisticated Kid-Friendly Picnic Table Party
Flexible finger food is key to a fun-filled outdoor dining experience. Sticky, finger-licking, lime and honey chicken drumsticks, some hot, some not, serves as the main attraction. Customizable melon salad sticks can be as simple as watermelon or as complex as olives, feta, mint and black pepper. The crudité features a local soft cheese, herb and yogurt dip and normal farmers’ market produce like sungold tomatoes and cucumber chips as well as extraordinary items like purple radishes or foraged husk cherries. I call this the “no-thank you bite”: To open mouths and minds to these new items, everyone sitting around the picnic table agrees to take an actual bite of anything on offer before it can be disliked. If any participants balk at the game, dangle the chewy cookies purchased at the market as the proverbial carrot.
Last Minute Perfection
Good bread, great cheese, height of the season berries, a bottle of red wine, local bunch of flowers, and a picnic blanket barely big enough for two. My work is done here.