by Greg Atkinson photographed by Barry Wong SUMMER AND picnics go hand-in-hand. But anyone can picnic in summer. More creative and adventurous...
Summer and picnics go hand-in-hand. But anyone can picnic in summer. More creative and adventurous souls picnic in winter, and they’re better for it.
Oh, sure, there are drawbacks — a lack of willing companions, frostbite, whatever — but the advantages of picnicking in winter provide more than ample compensation. Consider this: When less hardy souls have shuttered themselves indoors, the most scenic spots are yours and yours alone; there are no bugs to speak of, and any company you manage to coax along is bound to be bold and interesting. What’s more, in the cold, winter air, everything tastes 10 times better than it does in the forced hot air of the heated indoors.
I think my fondness for winter picnics might have been born before I ever experienced one. I was probably 10 years old when my widowed grandmother surrendered her home to go live with one of my aunts, and we came into her books. She had mountains of old novels, and because my grandmother knew I was a reader, she pointed out works by a few of her favorite writers. She loved E.M. Forster and his aunt, the Victorian novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, whose vaguely feminist works included “Enchanted April” and “Elizabeth and her German Garden.”
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“You’ll like these,” promised my grandmother, and I did.
“Yesterday by way of a change,” wrote Von Arnim, “we went for a picnic to the shores of the Baltic, icebound at this season, and utterly desolate at our nearest point. I have a weakness for picnics, especially in winter, when mosquitoes cease from troubling and the ant hills are at rest; and of all my many favorite picnic spots, this one on the Baltic is loveliest and best.”
I discovered firsthand the joys of eating outdoors in winter a few years later when I was cooking at a ski resort. One of the perks was a free lift ticket for the season; so, on my days off and during my breaks, I could ski for free. Because I didn’t want to waste any time not skiing, I would bring a sandwich and eat it standing on my skis in some sunny spot beside one of the less crowded runs, my cheeks flushed with a combination of windburn and exercise. I thought my sandwiches tasted better in the open air than they did in the crowded lodge.
When I started dating the girl who would eventually become my wife, I discovered that she, too, had a penchant for taking meals outside in the cold. Raised on ski trips in the Cascade Mountains and boating trips in the San Juan Islands, Betsy loves the outdoors. One of our early dates was a short hike on the day after Thanksgiving. We were on San Juan Island and headed into the woods with turkey sandwiches and a Thermos bottle of tea. The leaves crunched under our feet, and chill breezes from the open straits slipped between the bare branches of the trees around us.
After we were married, we went to live on San Juan for a dozen years, and there, winter picnics became something of a habit. I remember one day in particular, when we were trapped inside for days on end by a “nor’easter” that put out the power, froze our water pipes and threatened to drive us insane. I probably would have succumbed; but Betsy packed a lunch, filled a Thermos with hot tea and insisted that we go see Jackle’s Lagoon in the ice.
We had a child by then, and I was afraid he would freeze. But Betsy bundled him up and stuffed him into a backpack. “He’ll be fine,” she declared. The trail was a study in frost, and the sky, crystal clear that day, felt as if it had been rent open to the absolute emptiness of space. By the lagoon, which was frozen into wide gray-and-white ripples of ice, our woolly mittens stuck to the frozen sandwiches and the tea threatened to freeze in the cups. But with our baby in one pack and the picnic supplies in another, the world seemed new again.
As Arnim wrote, “The stillness of an eternal Sunday lay on the place like a benediction.” And though the baguette sandwiches, oatmeal cookies and juicy pears were good, the food we ate didn’t matter at all. What mattered was that we were in the light and air. And those things, light and air, are what picnics are all about.
“It seems to me,” wrote Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass,” “that everything in the light and air ought to be happy. Whoever is not in his coffin and in the dark grave, let him know he has enough.”
Greg Atkinson is author of “West Coast Cooking.” He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipe: Baguette Sandwiches
1 fresh crusty baguette
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8 (1 ounce) slices cooked turkey or ham
8 (1 ounce) slices Swiss or cheddar cheese
4 large leaves of green leaf lettuce, rinsed and patted dry
1. Split the baguette lengthwise. In a small bowl, whisk the oil and vinegar with a fork to make a kind of dressing and drizzle it over both sides of the cut bread. Sprinkle the bread with salt and pepper.
2. Lay the slices of meat and cheese in slightly overlapping shingles down the length of the bottom of the loaf and top with the lettuce leaves. Plant the top of the loaf over the filling and cut the sandwich into four serving-size lengths. To take on a picnic, wrap each one in baker’s parchment or wax paper.