Eating outdoors may not be everyone's idea of a picnic, but it's always been mine. Everything just feels festive and relaxed. Even the food seems to taste better. Not that a soggy sandwich becomes any less soggy, but when it's consumed on a beach at sunset, with an umbrella flapping in the breeze and the happy sounds of children building sand castles at low tide, somehow it's more enjoyable.
This word picture isn't a fantasy. It's what I experienced earlier this summer during a week-long visit to Nantucket Island, off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Talk about picnic paradise. It doesn't get much better.
It wasn't a soggy sandwich I ate at our beach picnic, but an unusual and delicious Indonesian rice salad that had a little extra crunch, thanks to the sand that had blown from nearby dunes into the bowl. The salad was my sister's contribution along with an olive tapenade, and hot dogs for the kids. Other family members and friends filled the makeshift table with fresh salsa, potato salad, grilled chicken, breads and chips, and the fixings for s'mores hidden from little eyes until time for dessert.
A shared meal is just what the Greeks had in mind when they started this wonderful tradition. In her book "Picnic!" Edith Stovel explains that historically picnics were like today's "potluck" suppers, with everyone contributing something to the spread. This ritual was later adopted by Scandinavians, Germans, and the French, who dubbed it pique-nique. In the early 19th century, picnics became fashionable in England, and the Picnic Society was founded there. Its members were expected to contribute something to either the table or the evening's entertainment.
Painters' canvases also captured the historic popularity of picnics. With their images of leisurely lunches in secluded gardens, the French Impressionists forever linked picnicking with fine food and romance. Perhaps the best known picnic ever painted is Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," although, as Ms. Stovel says, food was clearly not the main focus of this 1863 work.
Had the Impressionists discovered Nantucket, they probably would have plunked down their easels on its beaches and meadows to capture the evening's big event. Dining out is without doubt the "in" thing here.
Almost every evening during the week, we packed up supper and headed off to a different outdoor setting, each more charming than the one before.
As it turned out, these casual suppers were just a series of dress rehearsals for the week's finale. Part picnic and part performance, the final meal of the week couldn't be thrown together at the last minute. A photographer would be arriving on the 6 p.m. boat from the mainland, ready to shoot pictures of the dishes we had just four hours to make.
So there was no fooling around. I leafed through a stack of picnic cookbooks and chose eight recipes that would appeal to a crowd with diverse tastes -from Yellow-Pepper Gazpacho to Grilled Steak and Roasted Red Onion Ring Sandwiches. Blueberry Lemonade would start us off, and we'd finish with my sister Nini's famous Berry Tart.
After shopping for ingredients, Nini, her friend Beverly, a former caterer at the Ritz in Boston, and I got to work. Every inch of counter space in Nini's large kitchen was filled. Blenders whirred, Cuisinart blades sliced, and the three of us shouted back and forth as we searched for buried ingredients.
Anyone who dared enter the kitchen was put to work. Children picked raspberries and gathered eggs from the henhouse. The farmer next door stopped by to chat and hardly got in a word before he was recruited to tend the grill.
When Ben, the photographer, arrived, his backpack weighed down with camera equipment, we were garnishing foods, matching dishes to plates, and riffling through Nini's linen closet for the perfect tablecloth.
One by one we brought the dishes out to Ben. His camera hardly stopped clicking for an hour. As the sun started to set, we realized it was time for tasting the results of our labors.
As we passed plates and sampled dishes, conversation mostly concerned the meal. Like a tableful of food critics, we dissected every flavor and ingredient.
"I'd make the steak sandwiches with rye instead of pumpernickel bread next time," said Nini's husband, Bam. "Tastes good to me," mumbled Ray, the grill chef.
Ben piped up with "This is the most beautiful food I've ever seen. Too bad we have to eat it." Then he whispered a bit sheepishly, "Is there a McDonald's anywhere on this island?"
He may have gone back to burgers and fries after leaving Nantucket, but the photo of Yellow-Pepper Gazpacho now hangs in glorious color and enlarged size at his desk in Boston.
That was one alfresco meal that won't be easily forgotten. Picnics have a way of doing that.
*Take commercial mayonnaise on a picnic. Homemade mayonnaise will spoil fast in the sun as will cheese, butter, and other dairy products.
*Fully chill any dishes containing butter or cheese in the refrigerator before packing them in a cooler. Leave them in the cooler until serving time.
*To keep lettuce and other vegetables and fruits fresh, wash, dry, and pack them in plastic bags or reusable plastic containers. Chill them in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours before taking them to the picnic, preferably in a cooler.
*To minimize the attraction of insects and flies, store food on a table, shielded with a fine mesh screen or other covering, or in covered containers until ready to serve.
- From 'Picnics: Over 40 Recipes for Dining in the Great Outdoors'
(The Country Garden Cookbook series)
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society