What exactly is a picnic? Well, I’d say it is an event where the people, place and food are all that’s needed for a great time. The thrill of it all starts when we were kids leaning back on our bike seats nibbling a then 5-cent bag of potato chips with a Lifesaver for dessert. While that’s not very healthy, today you can include some healthy Native cooking options in your family’s picnic plans.
In my case, my friend and I parked the bikes on a high spot overlooking the polluted Providence River below thinking how lucky we were. This decadence escalated to peanut butter on crackers and a bottle of cola and a shared packet of Twinkies. As an aside, potato chips and peanut butter have Native American origins.
Summer heat required foods that resisted spoilage. In those times, only the wealthy had big clunky metal coolers. Still, it takes a lot to kill a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or bologna and mustard. Forget about mayonnaise, you could not take an egg salad or tuna sandwich very far from the kitchen without getting a vile sickness. Mothers became adept at making portable snacks and school lunches. They talked with other mothers to get variety and ideas beyond carrot sticks and little wax paper bags of pretzels.
We were blessed because my wise grandmother lived with us. She taught me to identify many wild things that would later add depth and sophistication to our Native cooking. Things like watercress, purslane, wild strawberries, and fiddleheads.
One of the best picnics ever was on a riverbank in central Massachusetts many moons ago. We did have white wine, but raspberry iced tea or lemonade are delightfully refreshing, too. A small wheel of camembert, some sharp cheddar, and some pickles, olives, maybe some marinated artichokes and roasted red peppers. All accompanied by a basket of corn bread cut in chunks. Yum.
In New England there is so much coastline that we often picnic on the beach. Here you really need a blanket or tablecloth, a sheet works well, too. If it’s windy or even slightly windy, a sheet or umbrella on the windward side will help keep out the sand. Whatever you do or wherever, thinking ahead and preparing is the key. Bring bags for garbage and keep some extras in the car. If you want to transport hot chowder, use a thermal bag and bed of ice cubes for raw clams, don’t forget lemon and cocktail sauce.
If you want to make it feel and look all “summery” take a cool fruit salad with colorful watermelon and lots of big blueberries and honeydew chunks.
Portable and Pretty Salad
½ pint cherry tomatoes
1 package raw spinach
1 can (15 ounces) corn kernels, drained
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, drained
1 orange bell pepper, chopped
½ red onion, chopped
1 small can black olives, drained
8 ounces crumbled feta cheese
Toss all together with your favorite vinaigrette or homemade dressing and chill until ready to pack up and commence with your picnic.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: “New Native American Cooking,” “Native New England Cooking” and “A Dreamcatcher Book.” She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.