The picnic is one of those experiences that tend to exist on two planes. There’s the imagined Jane Austen–type outing, with the perfect wicker basket, a thick blanket stretched across an expanse of green grass, and an assortment of visually appealing goodies. And then there’s the modern reality—one that all too often involves a bag of chips, a can of soda, and a mediocre sandwich. True, if the sun is out, the weather’s warm, and you’ve chosen your location and your companions wisely, even that ham and cheese on rye is likely to be among the best you’ve ever eaten.
But like so many experiences destined for the memory bank, a picnic’s success increases exponentially with the amount of advance attention it’s given. Think of this as a little art direction for one of life’s truly cinematic opportunities. With that in mind, I turned to chef Jody Williams of Buvette (www.ilovebuvette.com), a restaurant in New York City. In each of the restaurants she’s owned and run, Williams has shown herself to be someone who understands not just the enormous pleasure that can be derived from great food but also the role a meal’s ancillary elements can play.
That alone makes Williams a logical source for some picnic guidance, though as it turns out, she’s planning a summer picnic program for the restaurant—one that will provide guests with a personalized arrangement of simple yet indulgent foods, the various tools needed to make their outing a success, and even vintage bicycles for those feeling ambitious. Of course, for many of us, part of the fun of a picnic is assembling the different components ourselves, so Williams has also generously offered the following tips as well as a few of her favorite recipes.
It may seem self-evident, but no picnic primer would be complete without acknowledging the big three needed for any successful outing: a fine day, a great location, and excellent company. Imagine the picnic of your dreams, then introduce a little rain, a setting that doesn’t quite meet your aesthetic standards, or that uptight guy from the office. A picnic requires a certain intimacy—with nature, and with your dining companions—so if you’re not ready to cozy up with who and what are around you, you’ll be better off at a restaurant.
A successful picnic is in large part about aesthetics, but aesthetics married to functionality (remember, you have to carry all this stuff). To pull off this delicate balancing act, it’s critical to start with the right basket, as it will set the tone for the entire outing and largely dictate what, and how much, you bring. Williams has an array of vintage baskets that she’s sourced at flea markets; if you don’t already have one at home, add it to your list for the next time you go bargain hunting. If you’re not up for playing the waiting game, online resources such as The Basket Lady (www.basketlady.com) offer the classic wicker variety, while more tricked-out versions can be found at Epicnicbasket.com (www.epicnicbasket.com). The Oregon-based Signal Cycles (www.signalcycles.com), in partnership with the design firm Ziba, recently created a customized utility bike called the Fremont, equipped with a canvas satchel that fits neatly into a small sidecar—perfect for hauling picnic supplies.
"A successful picnic is in large part about aesthetics, but aesthetics married to functionality."
Almost as important as the basket is the right blanket. Williams plans to send guests off with one of the selections from her growing collection of impressive horse blankets. It’s a romantic way to go, though another option would be any of the specially designed blankets available online at places such as Picnic World (www.picnicworld.net) or Fresh Picnic (www.freshpicnic.com), many of which come with the added advantage of a waterproof backing.
Another key item on your equipment inventory should be a thermos, and while your nearest Walmart can no doubt supply you with a perfectly serviceable example, chances are it won’t meet the visual standards you’re aiming for. Instead, there’s a sixteen-ounce stainless-steel option from Thermos (www.thermos.com), which is at least industrial-looking enough that it won’t detract from your spread. For options that are more retro, consider any of the rugged vintage models available via Etsy (www.etsy.com).
When it comes to keeping the wine chilled, you’ll need a wine sleeve, ideally one that can be kept in the freezer and called into service when needed. There’s surprisingly little to choose from in this arena, but Sur la Table (www.surlatable.com) offers an option called the Cool Coat. It’s a little silly looking (the design features a button closure and a collar to recall the style of an actual topcoat), but it gets the job done. Or you can follow the lead of Williams, who, when asked how she would suggest solving this riddle, answered sensibly, “Stick with a red.”
One of the biggest challenges in putting together a picnic comes during the packing stage, when the organizer is faced with getting the food, the drinks, and all the various pieces of hardware (don’t forget the corkscrew!) into one manageable container. For Williams, the solution is to think of the basket as a bento box, in which each item can be neatly stacked or slotted as needed. To cut down on the number of individual items, not to mention the amount of assembly required at mealtime, she suggests packing elements together, like putting the butter and cheese alongside the bread or wrapping a hard-boiled egg in the same brown paper as its herb-salt accompaniment. Each package becomes its own little surprise, which makes the meal all the more special.
As important as all of the above may be, it won’t mean anything if there isn’t plenty of great food. For Williams, the key is to keep the food simple but indulgent, and to choose items that travel well—for example, brown bread, dried smoked fish, and fresh fruit. As with any meal, one can go as elaborate as a cold chicken with homemade aioli or as basic as slices of French bread rubbed with anchovies and tomatoes. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you’re eating from, the meal should have a rustic quality. After all, keeping things down to earth offers its own kind of romance.
Some of Jody Williams’s Picnic Favorites
By Chef Jody Williams
For more information about Buvette or its summer picnic program, contact the restaurant at email@example.com.
Brad Goldfarb is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in publications including Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair Italia, and Men’s Health. His cooking blog and website, The Recipe Grinder, can be found at www.therecipegrinder.com.