In a pandemic summer, picnicking ‘nurtures the soul’

Why We Wrote This

Amid coronavirus restrictions, people have displayed ingenuity and resourcefulness in finding ways to still come together. Exhibit A this summer: picnics. For added inspiration, included here are two recipes.

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(From left to right) Kimberly Maldonado, Ana Mejia, and Andreina Mendoza get together in Bremen Street Community Park to enjoy granizadas from a local ice cream shop on June 30, 2020, in East Boston.

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The Outermost Inn – one of the most exquisite properties on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard – has an elegant, special-occasion restaurant. But this summer, it’s trying something different: no-fuss picnics packed in traditional baskets that customers can tote to a beach, carry onto a boat, or just take back home.

“It’s a massive pivot for us,” says co-owner Alex Taylor. “We were inspired by our staff and how we all choose to enjoy our free time.”

Indeed, during the summer of 2020, as the pandemic persists, people are making all sorts of new and different choices. And as they seek ways to gather with friends in a coronavirus-safe manner, outdoor picnics have emerged as the dinner party of choice.

“It’s everyone’s preferred way to meet up these days,” says Annie Copps, a cookbook author who herself has been picnicking.

Recently Connie Helms and her husband reunited for a lakeside picnic with friends they’d only seen on video calls for the past few months. The group did potlucks in summers past, but this time felt different. Says Ms. Helms, a Vermont education consultant: “Being together again was even more special.”

The French get all the credit. Sure, pique-nique is a French word with a history dating back to the 17th century, when the French would gather for a shared meal. And then later in the early 1900s, people from Paris to Provence took those meals into a bucolic outdoor setting.

French impressionists often depicted the picnic tradition on canvas – most famously, Édouard Manet with his iconic “Le déjeuner sur lherbe.”

And the French are known for picnicking with style – packing baskets brimming with assorted cheeses, charcuteries, pâtés, fruits, and chocolates, and of course the requisite baguette, wooden-handled Opinel knife, and pretty Provençal tablecloth.

But it’s not just the French who can pull off a classy picnic or appreciate the casual, carefree ambiance associated with dining en plein air.

Picnics are plentiful in New England, too, particularly during the summer of 2020, as a pandemic persists, temperatures heat up, and Americans seek ways to gather with friends in a coronavirus-safe manner. Outdoor picnics have become the dinner party of choice.

Ann Hermes/Staff
The French Picnic sandwich is one of the most popular items on the menu at the Cheese Shop, June 27, 2020, in Concord, Massachusetts. The Cheese Shop has taken measures to safeguard staff and customers by limiting the number of patrons in the store to five and requiring masks and gloves.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“It’s everyone’s preferred way to meet up these days,” says Annie Copps, a cookbook author from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, who has been picnicking often now that restrictions in her state have eased and summer weather has arrived. “It feels more important than ever to check in with one another, and eating together outdoors is a safe way to do that.”

Connie Helms, an education consultant in Monkton, Vermont, would concur. Recently, she and her husband reunited for a lakeside picnic with friends they’d only seen on video calls for the past few months. In summers past, she’d gathered for weekly potlucks with the same group, but this time felt different. “The food was less of the focus since we weren’t sharing,” she says, “and being together again was even more special.”

Not that the meal is an afterthought for either of these women. Ms. Helms likes to make “fun food,” as she says, such as deviled eggs or her grandmother’s recipe for baba ghanouj, and Ms. Copps might whip up a beet tzatziki, eaten with pita chips, or her favorite gazpacho, which is smooth enough to be enjoyed without a spoon. (See recipe below.)

But by nixing the potluck aspect to picnics – in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines – some pressure can be lifted. People who aren’t inclined to cook or who have been working all day needn’t worry about wowing others with their homemade tagliatelle or gorgeous fig tart.

To simplify and at the same time support a business they care about, they might even pick up a beach-, park-, or backyard-ready picnic box or basket offered by one of the myriad restaurants, markets, or specialty food shops that have pivoted to picnics in response to this timely trend.

Peter Lovis, owner of the 53-year-old Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts, says he’s been selling about 100 custom-prepared picnics each week since March. Customers might order sandwiches or a variety of salads along with a loaf of crusty bread and a couple of wedges of cheese – more often cheddar or Comté than Camembert or chèvre, as harder cheeses can take the heat. Then they often head to nearby Walden Pond, to the Old North Bridge, or for a sunset kayak tour on the Sudbury River.

“The simple act of sharing a great meal outdoors with people you care about nurtures the soul,” says Mr. Lovis. “I hope this renewed interest in picnics is here to stay.” Meanwhile, jokes Mr. Lovis, who can no longer offer his store’s much-beloved samples: “I’m waiting for someone to create a mask that allows for cheese tasting!”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Peter Lovis, owner of the Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts, says he’s been selling about 100 custom-prepared picnics each week since March. “I hope this renewed interest in picnics is here to stay,” he says.

Even some fine-dining establishments are packing picnics, swapping out their silver, china, and white tablecloths for paper and plastic.

The Outermost Inn, one of Martha’s Vineyard’s most exquisite properties with an elegant, special-occasion restaurant, is about to roll out a menu of no-fuss picnics packed in traditional baskets that customers could tote to one of several beaches in Aquinnah, carry onto a boat, or just take back home.

“It’s a massive pivot for us,” says co-owner Alex Taylor. “We were inspired by our staff and how we all choose to enjoy our free time.”

Picnic baskets and price tags will vary, she explains, from the $15 “Kiddo” with such child-pleasers as PB&J and classic ham sandwiches, to the $25 “Low Tide,” starring fresh littleneck clams, lemons, and mignonette sauce and the essential shucking knife and glove. There’s also the similarly priced “West Basin” basket filled with an assortment of drinks and snacks.

Whether one opts to gather with loved ones over chips and salsa in the backyard or clams on the half shell aboard a sailboat, all interviewed shared their hope that today’s dinner party is here to stay and just might be one of those silver linings emerging from the current crisis.

Ann Hermes/Staff
(From left to right) Fatima Franco, David Lemus, and Wendy Franco eat a meal from a local taqueria at a picnic table in Piers Park on June 30, 2020, in East Boston.

Pallavi Mehta, a cooking teacher from Sharon, Massachusetts, certainly feels that. “After being in seclusion for so long,” she says, “I decided to meet this crisis head-on. So my husband and I invited friends to join us on a picnic to my favorite park. What a sheer joy it was to be hanging out outdoors, sharing our meals, exotic or simple, enjoying these precious moments in life and making the most of this situation.”

Even in France the much-celebrated tradition is enjoying a resurgence, says Julie Mautner, a travel planner in St.-Rémy-de-Provence. “My clients ask me often to plan a picnic for them, but especially after staying home for months, they are more excited than ever to share a leisurely meal in a beautiful outdoor setting with nothing to worry about but the occasional mosquito.”

Here is Ms. Copps’ gazpacho recipe, as well as a quinoa salad recipe from Ms. Helms:

Spoon-free gazpacho

1 English cucumber, peeled (or 2 regular cucumbers, peeled and seeded) and chopped

1 red pepper, seeded and chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and chopped

1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped

2 to 3 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish

4 medium ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped

1 medium red onion, chopped

4 cups (1 quart) tomato juice

1 1/2 cups plain bread crumbs

1/3 cup sherry vinegar

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a blender, purée all ingredients. You might need to blend in two batches. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into containers suitable for a picnic. Serves 6 to 8.

– From Annie Copps, cookbook author based in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown

Tangy quinoa salad

White quinoa has the fluffiest texture and most delicate flavor, but other types of quinoa could be substituted.

1 cup quinoa

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 to 4 scallions, chopped

1 red bell pepper, diced

Half of one English (long, thin variety) cucumber, diced

1/4 cup carrots, peeled and grated

About 1/4 cup Italian (flat leaf) parsley, chopped (can substitute cilantro or use parsley and cilantro)

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a fine-mesh strainer, rinse quinoa several times. Transfer quinoa to a saucepan, add 1 3/4 cups water, cover, bring to a boil, and then let simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, until water is absorbed. While quinoa is cooking, prepare vegetables. Once quinoa is cooked, release lid to cool and let off steam. When cooled, add olive oil and vinegar, and mix thoroughly. Then add vegetables, and salt and pepper, and refrigerate for a few hours until chilled.

If there are leftovers (unlikely!), add a bit of rice vinegar before eating, as the dish can lose some of its tang over time. Serves 4.

– From Connie Helms, frequent picnicker in Monkton, Vermont

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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