Welcome, friend, to the summer where little is as we hoped or expected it to be—especially when it comes to dining out. One of the only certainties during this unusual season is free license to eat al fresco, in the open air of a park or beach, on an unfurled blanket or in the thrown-open hatchback of a car. Basically, it’s the summer to rediscover the picnic.
Remember those? Growing up in the late ’70s, my earliest picnic memories were shaped at sprawling family gatherings in Eisenhower Park, where uncles would grill hot dogs and hamburgers, older cousins played volleyball and everyone swilled bottles of Pepsi (or beer) pulled from the soupy ice of Coleman coolers. We kids would race around to spy on what others had on their grills—coils of sausage, floppy steaks kicking up puffs of smoke, even the occasional leg of a lamb ... or was it goat? While the smells of each sizzling meat might be different, the languages spoken unfamiliar, everyone went home with the same lawn-chair imprints on the backs of their thighs, mosquito bites on their arms and a glow from a day spent outside.
“I have fancied picnics and eating out of doors more than any other fashion of eating,” the food icon James Beard wrote in 1960, adding that most food just tastes better outside. Even so, if cornered at a party, I bet Beard might admit that flaws are key to the experience. Perfect picnics are aspirational because they can easily go pear-shaped at so many junctures: Soggy sandwiches, leaky potato salad, marauding ants, a forgotten knife or a sudden downpour.
The great picnics of your life are remembered not for these mishaps, nor even what you ate, but for how these elements combine to capture a particular moment in time. In my 20s, that was a humid August Sunday in Central Park with a boyfriend and a blanket, some Snapple and turkey sandwiches from a deli—as well as a visit from a squirrel who chose to relieve himself on my head. Or a cliff in County Clare, Ireland, jackets spread on the grass, with a soggy egg-and-cress sandwich that couldn’t mar the sweeping views over the Atlantic. Or a long wooden table under a giant oak in southern France, learning about the textile industry (my host’s vocation) during an hours-long picnic of lentil salad, tangy goat cheese, a crackling baguette and plenty of wine.
That was the closest I’ve ever come to an archetypal picnic. How often have you actually used a wicker picnic basket, one filled with apples, a bottle of wine, flawlessly constructed sandwiches? For me, approximately once, and I can’t remember where or when. The “classic” picnic, with a checkered cloth and spread of artful food, may be the ideal, but, in truth, this way of eating has been in flux across centuries and cultures. This summer, we get to add another chapter to its timeline.
It was in France that the word “picnic”—or rather, pique-nique—was supposedly coined in the 1600s, though picnics had already been taking shape for a while, ever since the gluttonous meat-laden feasts of medieval hunting expeditions. Of course, European culture does not have the lock on picnics, by any stretch. In Iran, people “just picnic anywhere,” food writer Samin Nosrat has said. Visitors to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan have written about the exuberant, elaborate picnics in those countries, with urns of tea, piles of fresh salads and pilau, even furniture spread on ornate rugs—sort of pop-up outdoor living rooms. In Japan, the arrival of cherry blossoms signals hanami, picnics taken under the trees, sometimes with bento boxes made for the occasion. In Korea, this same tradition is called hwajeon nori, a spring ritual of picking flowers and eating pancakes outside.
Mexicans picnic on the graves of departed loves ones on the Day of the Dead—in fact, cemetery picnicking is a longstanding tradition across the world—eating tamales and sweet pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead.” Hungarians have such insight into the unplanned twists and turns of a picnic that they coined a word, madarlatta, for uneaten food that is carted back home (literally translated, it means “has been seen by a bird.”)
Picnic baskets actually did reign supreme for decades in at least in one country—England, where heading from crowded cities to greener pastures to feast outside, reached its apogee in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the pond in the United States, picnic culture flourished in tandem, with foods reflecting the hodge-podge way Americans like to eat: In 1904, that may have included sliced spiced beef, rye muffins, prune whip, baked bean sandwiches and potato salad, as advised by cookbook author Mrs. Mary J. Lincoln. A few years later, writer Emma Paddock Telford advocated for cherry shrub, pickles, peanuts, preserved ginger and a salad laced with nasturtium leaves and blossoms. (“In planning a picnic, it must be borne in mind that the fresh, out-of-door air begets healthy appetites,” she wrote in “The Book of Parties and Pastimes.”)
Fast-forward to the Eisenhower era, and you’ll find meat kebabs, devil’s food cake and cucumber salad packed in picnic hampers. By 1960, when Beard wrote his love-letter cookbook, “James Beard’s Treasury of Outdoor Cooking,” he included recipes for chicken divan and baby goat.
So sure, there is precedence for a picnic basket decked out with wine glasses, a cutting board, napkins and real plates. For some, the styling of the spread brings as much of a thrill as the meal itself. In the absence of a hamper, though, a summer of winging it calls for drawing on the tools you have on hand—and more important, diving headlong into picnic-friendly dishes we may not normally eat in our day-to-day life, something very easy to do on Long Island.
That could be Korean twice-fried chicken, a kimchi or scallion pancake and crispy radish kimchi from the food court of H Mart, the Korean supermarket in Jericho, where you can also pick up some kalbi (marinated short ribs), a refreshing seasoned cucumber salad and an array of sweet, salty and pleasantly sour sides.
It could be olives, sausage and cheese, or a Greatest American hero—loaded with turkey, beef, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles—from Iavarone Bros. in Wantagh. Add a couple of salads—one featuring chickpeas and another, pasta and pesto, for instance—and some mini cannoli, rainbow bars and other sweets.
It could be tender kebabs and carrot-and-raisin-studded rice drawn from that great picnicking culture of central Asia at Kabul Restaurant in Huntington, augmented with baba ghanoush, bulanee (fried leek pastries), shirazi salad (cucumbers, tomatoes and onions), and charred slivers of pita bread.
Or it could be as simple as some turkey sandwiches and cans of rosé, sipped on the beach at Orient Point State Park, while three generations of another family grill skirt steak and blast cumbia nearby. Because nostalgia takes all forms, especially during a summer of imperfections.