Sunday, February 10, 2019

The picnic memoirs

I was thinking about picnics. As one does. It was the day after I landed at JFK. Dark and very early in the morning, and about to become a gray wet winter day. My soul was stuck somewhere above the West Coast of Africa, trying to catch up with the plane that carried me for 16 hours from Johannesburg. It was missing morning coffee on the Cape Town terrace with sunbirds and flowers and corgis. 

Picnics cheer me up. Picnics even led, indirectly, to the Frenchman (who had written a post I chanced upon, about the challenges of photographing "a backlit saucisson on a picnic cloth somewhere near a lavender field in Provence." Tell me more, I thought!). 

So I began scrolling through some picnics I have known and written about on this blog. Some are mundane. A sandwich - but it is eaten on a rock beside a rushing mountain stream. And this makes everything taste better. Some are eaten in freezing winters. There is a lot of saucisson. There is a lot of bread (having cut down hard on wheat over the last year my picnic game has been challenged; meatballs, dips and raw vegetables have come to the rescue). There are many soups. And a lot of picnics in February! But the steady message is that picnics are good for us. Go and eat outside. Or just spread a cloth on the floor. 

Or join me on one sometime this year, in the wilds and tames of New York. 

January in the snowed-in Catskills. So cold we ate in the ZipCar. Fast tomato soup and sourdough and prosciutto sandwiches.

Another freakily warm January day Vincent and I picnicked beside the water of New York Harbor in Red Hook, a 25-minute walk from home (then on 1st Place, Carroll Gardens). The quick-pickled vegetables were supposed to make up for the floofy-soft potato bread (hiding crisp bacon and mayonnaise). 

On a much colder January day, we sipped very hot tomato-chile soup and chewed sandwiches on frigid Roosevelt Island.

In February in Prospect Park, we shared slices of cured duck breast. I noted, in that blogpost, the arrival of "an elderly Asian couple, well-insulated in big red puffer jackets, sit[ting] down to their own picnic complete with intriguing steam from flasks. After they had eaten she took a nap, head on arms on table, and he read the newspaper. It is never too cold to picnic."

February again, and in Red Hook, again - those bright blue days are irresistible.

Switch hemispheres: February breakfast picnic, Karoo-style, with rusks and coffee, beside the N1 between Beaufort West and Cape Town.

An early March picnic with the Frenchman on his birthday, out at Brooklyn's Jacob Riis Park.

And March in the still-bare Inwood Hill Park forest, I ate my chicken liver pâté with garlic mustard and field garlics and friends.

And perhaps we shared some drinks, too.

A completely different March: late summer in Cape Town, with my mom and dad and the Frenchman. The menu was: tramezzini with prosciutto, and cucumber and butter, chicken liver pâté with seed bread, garlicky shrimp in olive oil, herb and lemon roasted chicken, tomato wedges with green onions from the garden. And tiramisu.

Late April in the Catskills, with foraged ramps and farmstand sandwiches. Plus hard cider.

Lush late May at Dead Horse Bay, a spread for a happy band of paying walkers. Summer rolls stuffed with raw and pickled spring things (recipe in the fiddlehead chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast), pokeweed tea rolls (pokeweed chapter...), sweet olive oil and spicebush loaves (a Sicilian-style recipe in the spicebush chapter), and common milkweed flower cordial to drink (yes, recipe in the common milkweed chapter).

And May in Pelham Bay, with a rare and shared beer. Don't mock our beer tastes. Miller reminds us of camping. We love camping.

The sandwich was a sour cherry sourdough I had made in the Harlem kitchen, and featured beach plum chutney with cheese and arugula.

Roll on, summer. June beside the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The blog says: "I had made last-minute meatballs, spiked with finely chopped lemon grass, fish sauce and scallions. A mango and avocado salad with a little bottle of fresh lime juice, hot chiles, sugar and fish sauce, shaken and poured over on site."

And the July roof picnics, in our first Cobble Hill apartment and its 66 square feet of terrace plus all-important roof access (it is now utterly transformed by new construction). The tiny top floor apartment was incredibly hot, and we escaped to the roof's harbor breezes every evening.

This 4th of July menu reads:

Slaw of red cabbage, carrots and new peas.
Underdressed Waldorf salad of chicken, apple and celery hearts.
Frittata of eggs, potato, dill and parmesan
Pop Chips (moment of weakness)
Duck rillettes, quince pickles, pickled field garlic
Brown bread
Champagne (Duc de Romet)

July's smotheringly wet heat is the best excuse to make throwbacks like tuna mousse.

September, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, again.

And in another, southern September, I took my mom to picnic on Signal Hill, in Cape Town, post-fire and among resurgent spring flowers. Tomato soup in the mugs. Cucumber sandwiches.

One of the good things about our brief move to Harlem in 2014 was that apartment's proximity to the northern reaches of Central Park. This was a September picnic in pursuit of the hummingbirds that frequent the Conservatory Garden every autumn.

Same picnic. Raw vegetables are good travellers.

A September forage picnic at Dead Horse Bay, with quails eggs and bayberry dipping salt, mugwort crackers,  beach plum jam for wild herb cheese, juniper rillettes, and persimmon focaccia. Recipes are you-know-where.

An October picnic with my mom in the Catskills.

It was very cold, but I remember it mostly for my first taste of a local Honey Crisp apple.

And there are patterns: Back to the Catskills in another turning-leaf October, with ugly-delicious hen of the woods soup and bacon-and-garden-arugula-sandwiches.

And in December, a rolling picnic on the Adirondack train, heading for the Frenchman's family outside Montreal.

Once upon a time, I wrote:

"Sometimes, I think I picnic to stay sane.

"One might think that plates of pretty food are an indication of a sunny outlook. I say, look deeper.

"I say, the peeling and the chopping and the dressing and the arranging and the packing and the carrying and the sitting in a place where the air moves in a way that it never can indoors, are a last resort, the culinary equivalent of a rooftop-howling wolf inconsolable in its grief at the state of things. I picnic to let it all out. To say if we have nothing else, we have this."

Hungry yet?


  1. Yes ma'am . I'm imagining toasting up that sour cherry sourdough.
    And you always remind me to be mindful of flavor and presentation.

    1. I must make it was yummy. Time to wake the slumbering starter.

  2. Hear hear! You put it so beautifully... and those photographs... and the food. Ohhhh, maybe another book? I love picnics more than any other kind of eating.

  3. I needed it, too! Bringing my husband home from hospital to begin hospice care on his 80th birthday today. Besides advancing Parkinson's disease, congestive heart failure, he just developed a subdural hematoma. So happy you're back, Marie!

    1. Unknown (I wish I knew your name) - I am very sad that you and your husband are going through this. I send you love.

  4. Welcome home, Marie. Know it's been a strange few months and hope both you and your Mother are "better" - whatever that may be. It's still nice to know you're on this side of the globe for a while.

    1. Thank you, Win - I have nets for you. Will email for address...xx

  5. You certainly know how to picnic in style, Marie!! Welcome home!

  6. We love picnics. Season tickets to a local theater mean warm weather picnics before hand, a bottle of bubbly we sneak into the public park. Winter is picnics in front of our fireplace that makes regular diner time food seem special. I'm all for the picnic and whatever it means to you.
    And on another note, as a Minnesotan, the state that INVENTED the Honeycrisp, if you like that one try a SweeTango. Even better in my opinion.

    1. You raise the bar :-) SweeTango! I shall keep my eyes peeled.

  7. Ah, friend... this was exactly the tonic that I needed after a difficult day in the office. Beautiful words and beautiful pictures, as always.

    1. Sorry about a bad Monday, Brian... and thank you xx

  8. Lovely! May I ask, how do you transport your picnics? Basket, knapsack, some sort of bag? Appreciate your writing and photos so much.

    1. Good question. For my forage picnics with paying walkers (up to 15), I pack everything in containers, mostly made by U-Konserve. They are very good for stacking, and are lightweight stainless steel. These go into a knapsack, in layers. On the very top is anything that is a strange shape, or delicate, like a roulade or a focaccia :-) Small cutting boards go at the bottom of the knapsack. For picnics for two sometimes it's as easy as wrapping sandwiches in a nice napkin and slipping that into a backpack. A Thermos for hot stuff. For local and more elaborate picnics for me and the Frenchman or friends I like an assortment of baskets. Then I just need mules or alpacas for carrying... I also like waxed canvas bags for carrying - something with quite a firm shape that does not smoosh everything together.

  9. I can't wait for the many more picnics to come, near and far, extravagant or simple. And thank you for being the secret ingredient through them all! xxx

  10. Now dying for a picnic -- but mine are never as satisfying as yours look. Thanks for the details.

    And it's very nice to see, even just in memory, Storby. Imagine he too was integral to your at-home picnic. :)

    1. We still love him... It's nice to hear from you.

  11. I seem to have lost track of your email -- I was thinking of you this past weekend. I was missing my Dad and expect you were missing yours as well. The "first time withouts" are challenging.

    Also as I was thinking about you, I remembered this post (it's been haunting me in a good way) and thought that it has the fragrance of a book proposal . . . yes? I don't remember if I asked when it was first posted, if so, forgive the repetition. I don't mean to be insistent but -- did I mention? -- it's been haunting me in a good way.

    1. Hi Melanie (you can search your inbox for past emails, I think) - thank you! My dad actually disdained Father's Day (he was good at disdain!), but yes, I certainly did and do miss him, very much. Thank you for reminding me about this post, it does have some Ideas. Much love...


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