The Joy of Picnics
(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com)
From the Casual to the Chic
By Wendy Greenberg
“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.”
– W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge, 1943
When cookbook author Mary Abitanto eats al fresco, she appreciates both the landscape and the escape.
“A picnic to me is a chance to become grounded in the literal and figurative sense,” she says. “You become engulfed by the beauty of nature’s landscape and awaken your sense of smell (fragrant flowers, ocean breezes), sense of sound (birds chirping, ocean waves crashing), and taste (yummy picnic food).”
Abitanto calls it an “awe-inspiring backdrop that we cannot find anywhere else except in nature’s midst.”
Think Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass or The Picnic, or Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Eating outdoors enjoyed a renaissance during the pandemic as socializing moved mostly outside. Even now, shared outdoor meals remain a go-to social event, an experience that can be casual or upscale.
The modern picnic is accessible to all levels of merriment and communing, keeping in mind food safety and environmental responsibility, along with a great culinary experience, and a delightful view. (It has also become a popular Instagram opportunity.)
“Picnicking has become a popular trend,” says Suzette Louis-Jacques, a luxury picnic planner at La TAS Events in Somerset County. She said it started before the pandemic in the U.S. South and on the West Coast, and had been pivoting to the Northeast.
Louis-Jacques adds that “picnics are not for everyone,” so she discusses personal taste with the picnic-goer. “You want to plan it out,” she says.
Whether the emphasis is on the food or the mood, there are choices to be made: what food to bring, how complex a meal, and location. Additionally, we might think about how to reduce food waste, and, perhaps just for fun, step up our accoutrements: there are some pretty amazing backpacks that include glasses, utensils, blankets, and much more.
Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. (Wikipedia)
“The original definition of the word ‘picnic’ denoted something like a potluck,” said the late food historian Lynne Olver, founder of foodtimeline.org, on National Public Radio in 2013. “So you would have a bunch of people getting together, and each would be contributing to the feast.”
The “All-American Picnic,” as described in Good Housekeeping in July 1976, consisted of pineapple-glazed baked ham, corn relish, potato salad, buttermilk chocolate cake, and lemonade — but outdoor gatherings were a little more creative throughout history.
The magazine History Today in 2019 noted in “The History of the Picnic” that the French root may derive from the verb piquer (“to peck” or “to pick”) and the noun “nique” (“a small amount” or “nothing whatsoever”). The article by Alexander Lee, a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, notes that the words first appear in Les Charmans effects des barricades, ou l’amité durable de la compagnie des freres Bachiques de Pique-Nique (1649), a burlesque satire, where the character Pique-Nique is “a hero of the barricades; but, is also a glutton, whose guzzling stands in stark contrast to the food shortages caused by the very rebellion he was leading.” The name referred to a lavish meal enjoyed at other people’s expense, but within 50 years, it came to mean a meal where each guest brings a share.
In the 18th century, the aristocracy moved these meals indoors, with diners expected to contribute. The gatherings became known for conversation and wit. According to History Today, “Typical in this regard was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, while rewriting the first act of Les Muses galantes in Paris, would often dine with the Abbé de Condillac ‘tête à tête en pique-nique.’ In 1777, the novelist Cornelia Knight wrote in her diary that, during a stopover in Toulouse, she “was entertained at a ‘pique-nique dinner and dance.’”
When the French Revolution sent some aristocratic picnickers abroad, they introduced the concept to London and formed the Pic-Nic Society in 1801, where every member was required to bring six bottles of wine. Then the middle class moved picnics outdoors and simplified the meals. “The earliest reference to this new way of picnicking appears in John Harris’ The Courtship, Merry Marriage, and Pic-Nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren (1806), a children’s book,” notes the History Today article.
When the outdoor meal made its way to the United States, it was as an escape from the city. The outdoor picnic did not fully prevail however, until the early 20th century. Trains, cars, and bicycles made the countryside more accessible, and soon special baskets were produced for the mass market.
(Photo courtesy of Suzette Louis-Jacques, La TAS Events)
Melt In Your Mouth
For Abitanto, of the West Windsor area, picnics tend toward casual chic, with wine, salads, and entrees. Posting on Instagram as Marioochcooks, she is the author of three cookbooks including Food That Will Gather Your Family; Food From My Heart & Home; and her most recent, Gather For The Holidays. She offered these summer picnic “menu essentials,” favorites from her own family’s picnics:
Drink suggestions: Water infused with cucumber and mint, juice boxes, bottled water, lemonade with mint and a splash of vodka, chilled prosecco and white wine, and beer.
Tip: Fill up an unused tiny pool with ice and place all drinks on the ice, instead of lugging a heavy cooler. If possible, have two pools/coolers — one for alcoholic beverages and one for non-alcoholic beverages.
Appetizers: Salsa, guacamole, and chips; a vegetable platter with hummus and roasted veggies like Chinese eggplant, green beans, and asparagus, along with fresh vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, Chinese cauliflower, radishes, tomatoes, and celery; cantaloupe or honey dew melon, prosciutto, and watermelon skewers with a cilantro-lime dressing; mini caprese salad skewers with balsamic glaze and olive oil; and mini chive-cream cheese and cucumber tea sandwiches on whole grain bread.
Tip: Pre-assemble a vegetable board and cover tightly with plastic wrap for easy transport. Avoid using cheese which will lose its texture in the heat, and impact flavor and taste.
Tip: Place a cooler pack under the hummus so it remains chilled. Use a mesh cover over food boards, chips, etc. Lightly dress skewers right before serving.
Salads: Heirloom tomato salad with fresh basil ribbons; fruit salad assortment of berries; crisp romaine, tomatoes, red onion, and mozzarella balls; creamy burrata with peaches, heirloom tomatoes, and mint or basil; cucumber, strawberries, avocado, and pomegranates; cucumber, red onion, pomegranates, and dill; Chickpea Pasta Salad (see recipe); and Herby Potatoless Salad (see recipe).
Tip: Pre-assemble each salad and store in an insulated bowl so it remains cold. Add cheese like burrata right before serving. Dress salads right before serving. Place dressing in a mason jar with a secure lid inside a cooler. Make vinaigrettes for dressing — keep it light and avoid mayonnaise and creamy dressings like ranch.
Tip: If you must have potato salad and coleslaw that contain mayonnaise, use insulated bowls or insulated casserole dishes.
Entrees: Turkey and ground beef burgers (if grilling); black bean or lentil burgers; chicken thighs and breasts with barbecue sauce; hot dogs, or a vegetarian or vegan option. Don’t forget the buns. Store raw meats in a separate cooler and don’t mix raw and cooked on plates.
Tip: Don’t forget two spatulas: one for flipping raw meat, and one for cooked.
Sides: Watermelon, pickled onions, marinated mushrooms, pickles, and baguettes.
Desserts: S’mores if there is a grill, pies (“lillipies.com has some great mini pies”), and chocolate chip cookies.
The Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station, Atlantic and Ocean counties, published “Keeping Food Safe When Packing a Picnic,” and notes that:
Cut melons need to be kept cold. Melons can be a source of foodborne illness, with bacteria often present on the rind. Melons should be washed thoroughly before cutting, and then refrigerated immediately.
It’s best to chill water, soda, juice, and other drinks before packing them in the cooler. Use a separate cooler for drinks to avoid repeatedly opening and closing the one containing perishable food. Consider partially freezing bottled water to keep the water cold and to add extra coolness to the picnic bag.
Food should not remain at room temperature for longer than two hours. Discard all foods that cannot be stored properly or left unrefrigerated for longer than two hours. When temperatures are above 90 degrees F, discard food after one hour.
Location, Location, Location
Most of us have our favorite spots, and Princeton has plenty. The Princeton-Mercer Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the experts at the Nassau Inn, recommend the following:
No surprise that the Nassau Inn picked their home base, Palmer Square. It’s referred to as “one of Princeton’s most inviting green spaces.” Take advantage of Palmer Square’s many fine eateries that offer takeout sandwiches, salads, and desserts. Some are boxed and just right for a picnic. palmersquare.com.
Princeton Battlefield Park is a “unique blend of American history and natural beauty,” and can include a hike through the adjacent Institute Woods. It has limited shade, but that didn’t seem to hinder the America troops which were victorious over the British. While there doesn’t seem to be a designated picnic area, it gets rave reviews for a picnic spot on trip websites. nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks.
The Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park banks “make for a lovely, leafy spot from which to watch canoers and kayakers.” Picnic tables and shade can both be found. Although still recovering from damage from Tropical Storm Ida, the Bulls Island Day Use Area is open for picnics, and informal picnicking is allowed along the canal. dandrcanal.com.
Marquand Park, with its woodlands and meadows, is a quick step from downtown Princeton, but a totally different environment The 17-acre historic preserve is home to many varieties of trees and plants, and offers picnic tables. marquandpark.org.
Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve is often referred to as Princeton’s Central Park, and includes countless hikes, woodlands, and a lake. nynjtc.org/park/mountain-lakes-nature-preserve.
Other Spots Near Princeton
Community Park North and Pettoranello Gardens — Just a mile north of Nassau Street, picnic benches sit beside a pond, and an amphitheater hosts regular arts events. princetonnj.gov/facilities.
Mercer Lake offers kayaking rentals with a covered picnic area, and a gazebo overlooking the lake, within Mercer County Park. mercercountyparks.org.
Sayen House & Gardens — The botanical garden is a Hamilton Township municipal park with azaleas, rhododendrons, blooms, bridges, and a gazebo for a contemplative picnic spot. hamiltonnj.com/sayengardens.
Mercer Meadows in Pennington is the result of several areas that were unified in 2010. The new park is divided into five districts: Farm History, Rosedale Park, Ecological, Equestrian, and the Pole Farm – each with unique historical and natural aspects, and recreational activities. Rosedale Park’s pavilions are popular picnic spots, but picnic tables are located throughout Mercer Meadows. mercercountyparks.org.
Turning Basin Park, off Alexander Street, has grills, pavilions, and picnic tables, plus independently-run canoe/kayak rentals. princetonnj.gov/facilities.
Barbara Smoyer Memorial Park on Snowden Lane has a fishing pond, picnic tables, and a playground. princetonnj.gov/facilities.
Sourland Mountain Preserve — Owned and operated by Somerset County Parks Commission, the preserve contains several parks and picnic areas such as Duke Island Park, which has an accessible trail and tables. somersetcountyparks.org.
Baldpate Mountain was previously owned by the Kuser family, and many historical structures remain. The forests make up one of the largest and least disturbed tracts of woodland in the region, according to its website, and picnic tables are available. mercercountyparks.org.
Off the Beaten Path
Ralph Stover State Park, Pipersville, Pa. The Tohickon Creek makes a scenic picnic area, and the High Rocks section makes for a lovely view. Picnic tables and pavilions available. Carry trash out, no trash facilities. dcnr.pa.gov/stateparks.
Van Saun Park, Paramus. The 146-acre park boasts ball fields, tennis courts, splash pads, picnicking pavilions, playgrounds, a carousel, and miniature train ride, but the main attraction is the Bergen County Zoo. This park has electric vehicle charging stations. co.bergen.nj.us/parks-recreation-areas.
Cape May Point State Park, Cape May Point. Picnic areas with tables and shelters are at the park, as well as a group area that can be reserved for a fee. A popular site for bird watching, Cape May Point State Park is known for its lighthouse, beach, and a World War II gun battery and fire control tower. nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks.
Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville. The park has two picnic areas with tables and grills located at Knox Grove (with playground equipment) and Sullivan Grove. Charcoal fires must be confined in metal grills provided onsite or brought in by the picnicker. For larger groups, Greene Grove may be reserved for a fee. The park is the site of Gen. George Washington’s historic 1776 crossing of the Delaware River. The park has biking, hiking, and fishing. nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks.
High Point State Park, Wantage. Several picnic areas with table and grills are located throughout the park. Bring your own garbage bags and carry all your trash out with you. For larger groups there are three picnic shelters that can be reserved for a fee. High Point, atop the summit of the Kittatinny Ridge, rises 1,803 feet above sea level — the highest elevation in the state of New Jersey, and has views of three states. nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks.
Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, New Lisbon. Soak in the Pine Barrens in this park with several picnic areas with table and grills, and two picnic areas for larger groups with a pavilion and gazebo that can be reserved for a fee. Brendan T. Byrne State Forest has more than 25 miles of marked trails, including one which allows for access by wheelchairs. The Batona Trail links Brendan T. Byrne, Wharton, and Bass River state forests. Bring a bag or two, there are no trash receptacles in this park. nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/parks.
Picnics are popular for special occasions such as engagement surprises, birthdays, and fundraising events.
Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton offers Picnic in the Park in the summer to enjoy in the lovely art and garden venue. The venue says, “Indulge in an ambient lunch featuring your choice of starters, sandwiches, and salads and your choice of one bottle of wine. Picnic offerings serve two and come packed in a reusable, insulated tote complete with food, wine, tumblers, flatware, and napkins. Customers can also select a special children’s boxed lunch for an additional price – perfect for a family-friendly day out.”
The menu includes choices such as the Mediterranean Dip Duo, Tapas Sampler, Ham and Brie Sandwich, Health Nut Salad, and more, and choice of red, white, rosè, or sparkling wine. The price of $60 serves two; a children’s box is an additional $9. Picnic in the Park is available Thursday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with pickup at the Van Gogh Café. To preorder, email email@example.com.
Picnic Planners — Louis-Jacques of La TAS Events was thinking about an event business after she hosted a picnic for family and friends, and it came to fruition during the pandemic, when many were thinking about eating outdoors. A luxury picnic, she says, “is a unique way to create a memorable experience. Our goal is to create a memory that is special and unique that one will always remember.”
La TAS has three picnic packages — Classic, Chic, and Lux — which start at $350 and can run to $525 (20 people maximum). These picnic events can include blankets, cushions, trays, carriers, baskets, floral arrangements, candles, lanterns, pickup and cleanup, a low-set table, and even traditional picnic games like ring toss and Jenga.
(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com)
A Sustainable Picnic
Sustainable Princeton reminds us to act responsibly and host a low-waste event, and take these steps to reduce post-event waste:
Rethink food requests. Ask attendees to chip in funds rather than individually-purchased food items. Group purchases of pizza, pasta, or large subs reduce packaging waste and save time and emissions from everyone stopping by the store.
Reusable serving dishes make sense. Having a potluck? Encourage guests to bring items in reusable serving dishes rather than disposable containers.
Skip bottles and cans. Instead of individual bottles or cans, use reusable dispensers or pitchers. If you are buying soda, purchase larger, recyclable bottles. Either way, offer reusable cups or glassware if you have enough. (Use a dry-erase marker, charms, or little stickers to label cups and glassware.)
Reconsider dessert. There’s nothing better than homemade brownies, so skip the popsicles wrapped in plastic and bring baked goods with a smaller footprint. If you’re buying goodies from a local baker, bring a reusable tray or container for transport.
Serve sustainable snacks. Keep it simple with items that can be served on a napkin. Go bulk and stay away from individually packaged items.
Forego cutlery and plates. Serve finger foods so you can skip the added costs (to your pocket and the planet). When they are needed, stick with reusable products that can be washed for future use.
Sort it properly. During the event, ensure you have collecting bins available for recycling, compost (if available), and landfill. Make sure signs are clear and locate all three bins together, so guests are encouraged to sort.
(Photo courtesy of Grounds For Sculpture)
Step up your picnic game – Amazon.com has a range of picnic baskets and insulated picnic backpacks with blankets, cutlery, and more, and wicker baskets that are movie-set ready. Amazon also has wineglass holders that anchor in the ground and hold a glass just about at sitting level. Also available is grill cleaner for the park grill, and insulated casserole dishes.
Also consider small food tents that keep out insects and blowing leaves; bug bracelets; and Bluetooth speakers, but be mindful of picnicking or hiking neighbors.
And, for a very Princeton picnic, the Princeton University Store has some University logo-embossed items such as a cheeseboard with utensils; bamboo salad hands; a zipper pouch for keys, phones, and sunscreen; a bread board; an assortment of water bottles and canteens; and table covers and paper napkins.
Chickpea Pasta Salad
From cookbook author Mary Abitanto
1 (29-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 large yellow pepper, seeded and diced
1 large orange pepper, seeded and diced
1 ½ cups carrots, diced (about 3-4 small carrots)
½ large red onion, diced
Fresh basil (or fresh parsley)
1 lb. bag vegetable or tri-color Radiatore or Rotelle pasta
1 ½ shallots, diced
½ cup diced feta cheese
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
Ground sea salt and cracked black pepper
A drizzle of a good quality extra virgin olive oil
Table salt to season pasta water
1 cup reserved pasta water
Large pot with lid for cooking pasta
Lemon-Hummus Dressing Ingredients:
1 ¼ cups store-bought or homemade hummus
1 freshly squeezed lemon, about 2-3 tbsp. lemon juice
4-5 tbsp. aged sherry vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
A drizzle of a good quality extra virgin olive oil
Cook the pasta according to directions. Season pasta water with table salt to flavor the pasta.
Note: Tri-color or vegetable pasta will make this salad more colorful, but if you cannot find it use regular. It will not impact the flavor.
In the meantime, in a small bowl, add the diced shallots, red chili flakes, sprinkle of sea salt, 2 tablespoons chopped dill, and 5-6 basil leaves cut into ribbons. Add 1 cup of the pasta water and a drizzle of olive oil. Add this to the pasta once drained. This will infuse some added flavor into the pasta salad. Mix well to combine flavors.
Next, rinse and drain the large can of chickpeas. In a large bowl, add the chickpeas along with the diced vegetables, red onion, more basil ribbons, about 6-8 more leaves, and more chopped dill to your taste. Season with sea salt and crack black pepper.
In a medium-sized bowl with high sides, whisk together the hummus, lemon juice, sherry vinegar, and a drizzle of olive oil along with more salt and cracked black pepper to taste.
Combine the pasta with the chickpeas and vegetables. Toss in the hummus dressing and mix well to combine. Garnish with more basil ribbons and chopped dill. Serve cold or at room temperature. Refrigerate to chill. Add feta cheese right before serving salad.
If you are serving this at a picnic, store it inside a cooler bag in an insulated bowl to retain the cold and freshness. Keep it out of direct sunlight.
Herby Potatoless Salad
From cookbook author Mary Abitanto
2 small cauliflower heads, cored and gently boiled
½ cup low-fat Greek yogurt
½ cup light mayo
4-5 scallion stalks, diced light green parts only
2 celery stalks, peeled and diced
½ small, sweet onion, diced
6-8 tbsp. apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
Cracked black pepper and ground sea salt to taste
Dried tarragon to taste
3 fresh dill sprigs, finely chopped
Large pot with lid
Cut the cauliflower into bite-sized florets, not too small because you want them to have a bite to them. Boil the cauliflower in a large pot until just about tender. You may also microwave these if you are using the florets in a bag. Don’t overcook. Allow them to cool.
In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, mayo, and vinegar. Whisk until creamy and smooth and no lumps remain. Add the cauliflower florets, diced onions, and celery along with seasonings to taste. Add the tarragon and chopped fresh dill. Tarragon can be slightly overpowering but paired with the dill it has a more subtle undertone. Adding fresh herbs to any dish is a wonderful way to brighten it with fresh flavors.
Once cooled, chill for 2 hours and serve chilled or at room temperature. Chilling overnight to meld flavors further is highly recommended. If it dries out a little add 1 or more tbsp. of vinegar to loosen.
If you are serving this at a picnic, store it inside a cooler bag in an insulated bowl to retain the cold. Keep it away from direct sunlight. Feel free to skip the mayo if you will be outside all day in the hot sun. In this case, use a higher-in-fat Greek yogurt.