Dab Hand at Picnic, Not So Spry

It’s picnic time again, and as I said in my post last July, I’m a dab hand at picnics! Last Wednesday, we got treated to the Members Only Evening at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as guests of my brother Martin and sister-in-law Susan. I’d heard how lovely these evenings are—with music, special cocktails, and the prospect of picknicking on the grounds that are usually off limits.

Picknicking on the ground. Hmm. This is why the Chef is notably grumpy about picnics. Give him a proper table and he’s happy to eat al fresco. Well, this is the year when I started realizing I might be too old to eat on sloping ground with knotty roots protruding beneath our picnic “sheet.” To be sure we’d lit on a lovely spot under trees, strewn with dappled light and within earshot of the enticing latin rhythms of Sonido Costeńo. Yet, we laughed in recognition as we saw each other struggle to get comfortable, wincing at hip and knee pains.

For their picnic my brother brought guac and blue corn chips and his own tasty bucatini pasta (the one that looks like a drinking straw) with an anchovy, tomato and parsley sauce. I zipped open my Mary Poppins Trader Joe Freezer bag and took out a huge decorative Melamine bowl, tin plates, silverware and an olive oil cruet. Conscious of the contrast between their paper plates, plastic cutlery and Tupperware and my picnic finery, my sister-in-law said jokingly, “Don’t shame us in your blog!” Shame them or anyone? No way. After all, the phrase “That’s not my idea of a picnic,” means individuals have very specific ideas of what makes a picnic, and your picnic should be one that works for you!

 When I make a picnic, the control freak vacation packer in me is on in full force. I packed for our family-of-four trips until my kids went to college. I like to figure out how to pack the elements of my meal, making sure they don’t get crushed or soggy. And, truth be told, the bar is high eating with the Chef. I can’t just make some perfect sandwiches or distress a rotisserie chicken and call it a day. That’s why I was so pleased to come across this Food52 recipe for a Salade Niçoise with specific instructions for picnic packing. The recipe was also fortuitous, because I’ve been reading Julia Child’s delightful, joyous memoir, My Life in France. A salad niçoise manages to unify the different tastes and textures of canned Italian tuna, olives, hard boiled eggs, lettuce, green beans, tiny potatoes, tomatoes with, in this case a mustardy vinaigrette for some elements and a lemony dressing for others. A tip for those following this recipe: don’t bother with rolling the little potatoes in Vermouth!

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. Before assembling the salad in the bowl, I went in search of those fanciful cocktails Sue had told me about. No luck for me. Just margarita in a can and for $13 at that! I decided to stick with our contraband red wine in a thermos. Sue was more enterprising; she circled the Lily Pond Terrace and didn’t come back until she had that slushy cocktail ushered in by the instagram era: frosé. Not so instagrammable in the museum’s plastic cup, but I had a sip and it was sweet, cooling and, as my sis-in-law said, a very surreptitious alcohol delivery vehicle: the kind of drink that you won’t realize is knocking you for a loop until you’ve had one too many. My brother didn’t need any frosé to get up and do his loopy dancing on the terrace. I love his fun, freaky moves—part Salsa and part Egyptian King Tut—and how, like me, he always jumps up to dance when music is playing, full of joy and not worrying what anyone thinks.

By the time we left the sky was darkening and children were running across the resplendent lawns—across which no children are allowed to run when the garden is open to the hoi polloi—capturing fireflies in their cupped hands. We struggled as much to get off the ground as we did to get on it, wary of aching joints. I stashed my beautiful periwinkle, white and ochre bowl away in my bag. Just four days later, on Sunday, this same bowl that held the beautifully composed salad was the baptismal font in the christening ceremony for our friends’ and neighbors’ new baby girl, Thomasina Milagros Graham, who came into the world shortly past midnight on June 23d. For birthdays to come I wish her many joyful evenings catching fireflies in city gardens.