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Summer picnic

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Plan and pack a perfect Southern picnic with 5 tips from Virginia Willis

As a kid, my Southern summers were spent fishing and swimming at the pool or in the lake, shelling peas or shucking corn on the front porch in the cooler evenings, and catching fireflies with my sister after dark. And, more than anything, summer meant picnics. Every Saturday, a mixture of friends and family would caravan to a lake with coolers and wooden picnic baskets, laden with food.

A day of swimming and playing was capped by a grand picnic spread. The most sought-after container was the pale green Tupperware bowl filled with homemade fried chicken. And we always had macaroni and potato “salad.” (Only in the South would we marry pasta or potatoes and mayonnaise and call it a salad.) Southerners are pretty darn serious about their mayonnaise, often considered one of the primary food groups. My grandmother and mother were loyal to Duke’s, while my Aunt Lee used Miracle Whip.

While we kids played in the water, my grandfather was usually seated in the shade sipping cold drinks with the other men at these picnics. He grew an amazing vegetable garden every summer. Red Georgia clay and hot summer sun are a potent combination for growing intensely flavored produce. One of the coolers always contained a simple salad of tomato and sliced cucumbers straight from his garden.

I loved those summer days. Picnics defined our summer. When executed properly, a picnic can create memories that shape our lives like these outings did for me as a child — and, if nothing else, it’s a great way to spend a weekend afternoon. We all know not all picnics are created equal, and a meal outside does not make for a great party if the food isn’t right, the bugs are biting, and you leave the wine tool in the car after hiking up a hill. A little bit of forethought will make a huge difference.

To help make it easy, here are my five key tips for packing the perfect picnic:

Keep it simple
Coolers are undoubtedly the best for keeping food cold, but keep an eye out for the insulated fabric versions which are lighter and easier to haul than a cooler — unless the cooler is on wheels. Our summer tote is an insulated tote bag with long shoulder straps. The bags are not the best for keeping food cold for a long period of time, but for a short jaunt, they are far easier on the back! 

Also, keep your eyes out for eco-friendly plates that are light and not breakable, and always make sure to pack that small cutting board, knife and wine key or bottle opener.

Keep it cold
Food safely is a real concern. Foods that should be refrigerated should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. I like to pack my cooler bag with frozen water bottles as they can be used twice: First as ice packs, then as thirst quenchers. The bottles help keep food chilled, but will thaw as the day goes on — leaving you with another round of cold drinks. You can also use insulated tumblers for chilled soups, such as gazpacho, or for watermelon smoothies.

Keep it clean
Paper goods and toiletries are important. Pack a roll of paper towels for clean-up and make sure to take plenty of napkins and antibacterial wipes for sticky fingers. And, all that paper has to go somewhere, so make sure to take a couple of trash bags. Don't forget the rule to take only photographs and leave only footprints!

Keep it smart
You want to be comfortable. Don’t forget floor pillows or beach chairs in which to lounge. No one can be comfortable with mosquitoes or horseflies buzzing about. Citronella candles and insect repellent are also worthy additions to the picnic tote. I particularly love the citronella incense sticks that you can place in the ground surrounding your picnic area.

Keep it delicious
Serve casual foods like pimento cheese and celery that need only a few or no utensils. I also love a good deviled egg, and my family's favorite dishes — fried chicken, macaroni salad and garden-grown tomatoes — are all great options. If you'd like a hand-held option, give my egg salad sandwich a try, and be sure to pack bags of peanuts or pecans — they're less crushable than potato chips, and they're healthier, too.

Bon Appetit, Y’all!
– Virginia Willis


Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Virginia's newest cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table," is currently available for here. Her previous book, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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