Elements of stylish dining outdoors
In the Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago hangs one of my favorite paintings. It’s the immense, circa 1884, 81-inch by- 121-inch pointillist work, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” by the French painter Georges Seurat. Awash in a sprawl of complimentary colors with what I always found to be a curious blue, orange and red border (added later in 1889), it depicts fashionable people, their wee children and wee pets in the park relaxing and enjoying the day on an island in the Seine River. This painting came to mind Sunday, while on the banks of the Mississippi at the Fly at Audubon Park, picnicking with friends.
Our merry party of seven converged upon the park toting the myriad makings of a picnic feast. With everyone’s contributions, the day came off seamlessly and made all of the pre-planning worthwhile once we claimed our space under a tree, poured a chilled, bubbly cocktail and spread cheese on that first bite of baguette. It was pure enjoyment for the next four hours. Not only that, but — with a bit of expert, behind-the-scenes coordination with a like-minded friend — it was downright chic.
Here are five tips for a stylish picnic that will surprise and delight:
1. Create a guest list that includes your most jovial, outdoors-loving friends who enjoy group activities and pitching in, as there will be much planning and schlepping. My friend Ginny became the co-hostess and jumped in with zeal.
2. Choose a location based not only on proximity to the guests, but also consider bathroom accommodations, shade cover and any special needs guests. The Fly was perfect for our gathering, especially since with trains on one side and boats on the other, our youngest member of our party (2 years old), was kept occupied by the sights, sounds and large modes of transportation.
3. Decide on a menu and divvy up the dish assignments. For our day, we decided on sparkly cocktails with Cava, Lillet Blanc and a slice of orange, plus homemade strawberry lemonade as a non-alcoholic option (or as another item to mix with the cava); snacks would be cheeses, meats and breads; for the main meal, we’d nosh on fried chicken and various sides; and for dessert homemade strawberry shortcakes with whipped cream. Ginny’s husband made his famous fried chicken, while she whipped the cream and raided the sides at Whole Foods (if you haven’t tried the Sriracha Brussels sprouts, get thee to Whole Foods). More sides by another pal, cheeses, meats and bread by yet another and voilà!
4. Inventory and gather outdoor games (we brought horseshoes, but you could do bocce ball, Frisbee, toss a football or lacrosse sticks and ball as we saw a group doing), baskets, coolers, linens, blankets, plate ware, flatware and other utensils, including a cheese board and knives, then buy borrow and otherwise supplement as needed. This event provided an excuse to finally get a sweet little wicker picnic basket, blanket and napkins I’ve been dying to buy for years. I found mine at Target on lunch break. It only took about 15 minutes and was worth the trip for the old-timey picnic vibes it brought to the affair. After sending pictures of the ensemble to Ginny, she brought extra tablecloths, blankets and napkins to mix-and-match. The color theme was overwhelmingly blue with various patterns to keep it visually interesting, but still casual — after all, it’s a picnic not a formal dinner.
5. Once you’ve arrived at the picnic spot and scoped out the perfect place under a shady tree, set up your blankets. Put your drinks cooler down hill from the blankets, in case there is condensation or if it springs a leak. Also, Ginny brilliantly set up a dining blanket, in which all of the food was spread. This freed up the other blankets for sipping, lounging, chatting and enjoying the beautiful day with friends.
Don’t wait too long to have your fabulous picnic, given that New Orleans' oppressively hot months are nigh. Also, bring garbage bags to clean up and pack the bug spray — something we all wish we had remembered to do.