Memorial Day reminds me of the sight of a polished vintage automobile carrying old Mrs. Whalen along the central axis of Main Street during the annual parade in my hometown in the 1980s and 1990s. She had lost sons during the World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The day that officially honors the soldiers who died in the war also unofficially marks the start of the summer picnic season in the Northeast. His approach makes me want the picnics of my youth. There were enough cousins to field kickball teams and enough food to feed an army. There were enough folding chairs for the aunts who prepared all that food and the uncles enough that we kids didn’t have to lift a finger to help organize or break down the festivities.
As my family’s current picnic planner and green-eating sergeant-at-arms, I’ve compiled a mental checklist for hosting the biggest picnics with the smallest environmental impact. I have written this list here for your benefit and mine. While I can easily remember the air of solemn silence as Ms. Whalen’s car drove past my family sitting on the sidewalk in Lee, Massachusetts 40 years ago, I regularly forget why I got into the basement of my current house in Brunswick.
Oh yeah, now I remember. It was to take out the picnic basket!
Site selection: Choose a location near public transport or along a greenway for picnickers to take the bus or their bikes. Consider an environment that has sustainable design elements like rain gardens and native plantings that help reduce runoff and provide habitat for wildlife. Some sites may have staff or volunteers on hand to talk to your group about the benefits the park offers to surrounding ecosystems.
Paperless invitations: While I love receiving mail, in the digital age paperless invitations are the most environmentally friendly option. From free group emails or texts to paid digital stationery, services like Greenvelope – which offers exterior-inspired design, calendar sync, potluck coordination, and RSVP tracking services – let you Easily assemble your party without paper.
Menu planning: It is convenient to grab and take prepared items from the grocery store, but these items can generate a lot of waste. Instead, visit the Farmers’ Market, which not only will give the freshest produce possible, but can also offer items like oysters and cheese to start the meal, cool sausages for the grill and cookies and cream for dessert. The growing variety of vendors in Maine’s markets has broadened the reach of many farmers’ markets and means you can avoid unnecessary plastic wrap on your picnic.
Greener grills: If your outing involves grilling, you will likely use a charcoal barbecue on site. Cooking with charcoal can release over 10 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air per hour. Try more environmentally friendly natural charcoal briquettes without toxic additives like charcoal, sodium nitrate, and borax. The charcoal certified by the Forest Stewardship Council comes from sustainable forestry operations. Use a charcoal fireplace or electric charcoal starter instead of a lighter liquid to run your grill.
Drinks: Aluminum cans are better than plastic bottles when it comes to single serve sodas. But bulk hydration is your best option. Fill large coolers with ice water, tea, lemonade, or craft cocktails. And if you’re serving beer, use growlers or tap a keg.
Equipment: Ask your guests to bring their own reusable utensils, plates, cups, napkins, and food transport equipment. If you must use disposable items, use compostable dishes and utensils.
Decor: Decorate tables with reusable tablecloths and fresh cut flowers in reused jam and pasta sauce jars.
Entertainment: Think frisbees made from recycled materials, cornhole sets made from reclaimed wood, and binoculars for bird watching. Create a scavenger hunt list and have participants take pictures on their phones instead of taking the items from their surroundings, unless those items are trash, of course.
Clean: Your picnic waste will be minimal. But bring a compostable trash bag to collect food scraps, as feeding local wildlife is a bad idea. Leaving the place in better shape than you found it, however, is a great idea, so pick up whatever trash you see, even if you didn’t put it there in the first place.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special”, an Islandport Press cookbook based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]
Raspberry and Lemon Poke Cake
Here’s my original take on the Jell-O and Duncan Hines Poke cake my mom made for summer picnics when I was growing up. It’s light, refreshing, and reminds of incredibly happy times. If I have a suitable jam on hand, I’ll spread a layer of it over the cake before frosting it with whipped cream. Find the recipe for raspberry-thyme simple syrup in my column of April 18, 2021.
Serves 12 amply
FOR THE CAKE:
3 cups (360 g) unbleached cake flour
1½ teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Zest of 2 lemons and 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup of milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup (1½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cup (300g) sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
FOR THE GELATIN SYRUP
⅓ cup of raspberry and thyme simple syrup (see recipe note)
1 envelope of unflavored gelatin
⅔ cup of hot water
1½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons of mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon of sugar
Pint of fresh raspberries
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 13 x 9 inch pan.
To make the cake, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest in a bowl. Combine the milk, vegetable oil and lemon juice in a measuring cup. Whisk to mix and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle, beat the softened butter on medium speed until smooth. Gradually add sugar while the machine is running. Once all the sugar has been added, increase the speed to high and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until the yolk of the yolk disappears into the batter before adding the next.
You can also add the flour mixture and milk mixture to the bowl, beating to combine after each addition.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon. Bake in preheated oven until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and tops are golden brown, 27 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool to room temperature.
To make the gelatin syrup, pour the simple syrup into a measuring cup. Sprinkle gelatin on it. Let the gelatin bloom. Whisk hot water until mixture is smooth. Use a skewer to poke holes at ½ inch intervals all over the cooled cake. Slowly pour the gelatin syrup over the cake, making sure that a little seeps into each pierced hole. Cool the cake for at least 4 hours.
To frost the cake, beat the cream in a cold bowl until it can contain soft peaks. Add the mascarpone and sugar and beat until the cream has stiff peaks. Spread the cream in an even layer on top of the cake. Decorate with the berries. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Clean up your pantry in the spring and strengthen your sustainable eating habits