BY VIRGINIA WILLIS PHOTOS BY JENNA MOBLEY
The official start of summer may be the solstice on June 21, but summer really starts with Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kickoff of afternoons spent tending burgers and ribs on the grill, enjoying lazy picnics in the park—before it gets too hot—and supper under the stars at Chastain Park Amphitheatre. Food just tastes better when served outdoors on a beautiful evening. Our senses are enlivened and we are more engaged. On my deck I have the very same picnic table my mother used as a child. It essentially serves as our dining room table in the spring and early summer. Dining alfresco is one of the true joys of the season.
Dining on the deck certainly presents fewer demands than carting coolers to the park or negotiating supper on the tiny tables at Chastain. The menu is key to the venue in regards to outdoor dining. Grilling out presents opportunities for not only burgers and hot dogs, but also steaks, chicken, pork chops and ribs. Picnicking in the park need not simply be fried chicken picked up at a drive-through, but also chicken salad, chilled soups such as gazpacho, and fruit salad. When preparing meals for organized picnics at a concert, plan ahead and slice the meat. Bite-size things are best. However tasty, no one wants to wind up with a slab of perfectly seasoned grilled eggplant in their lap.
VIRGINIA’S OUTDOOR DINING TIPS
A picnic is defined as “any outdoor meal” or “a pleasure trip or party with a meal in the open air.” We all know not all picnics are created equal and a meal outside does not make a party if the food isn’t right, the bugs are biting and you leave the corkscrew in the car after hiking up a hill. A little bit of forethought will make a huge difference.
CHECKLIST: A checklist is Standard Operating Procedure for event caterers and is a great habit to develop. Make a list of all the food, drinks and the necessary serving utensils.
COMFORT: No one can be comfortable with mosquitoes or horseflies buzzing about. Citronella candles and insect repellent are worthy additions to the picnic tote.
TABLEWARE: Just because it’s outdoors, there’s no reason to disregard the need for proper tableware. Paper plates and plastic utensils have no panache. Look for reusable lightweight and durable plastic plates, knives, forks and spoons. Reusable sets are not only better for the environment, they make a better table—or blanket, as the case may be. Festively colored sets are available everywhere from Tuesday Morning to Star Provisions.
FOOD SAFETY: Food safety can be a real concern. Foods that require refrigeration should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. It’s important to keep them cold.
Virginia Willis is a chef and food writer based in Atlanta. Her fans love her knack for giving classic French dishes a down-home Southern feel and reimagining homey Southern favorites in Française. For more about Virginia visit virginiawillis.com.