Spring is the perfect time to pack a picnic

Chris Muyo

Instead of a red-and-white plaid blanket, he brings a Villanova fleece throw. Instead of a wicker basket of plates and utensils, there is a plastic bag with plastic cutlery from CVS. Instead of wine, cheese and carefully prepared hors d’oeurves, there is a bottle of orange juice and a box of Wheat Thins from 2nd Storey.

The young man is nervous, wondering, “Is this too old-fashioned and sappy?” The girl thinks, “Not many guys do things like this anymore. This was a great idea.”

Villanova students do not often experience this scene anymore, as picnicking seems a lost social custom among young adults.

The practice of picnicking may be stereotyped as frivolous and outdated, but the change of seasons from winter to spring brings with it the annual opportunity for students to rediscover a custom that has been abandoned.

The natural environment and casual atmosphere of a picnic are perfect for either a date with a special someone or an afternoon of outdoor fun with a group of good friends.

“I would love to go on a picnic,” junior Peggy Costello says. “I like being outside when the weather changes, and there’s something unique about a relaxing, low-key afternoon picnicking with friends.”

But Costello also recognizes the general lack of interest in casual outdoor dining.

“Now, people mostly like to throw ‘Beer-B-Qs’ or tailgate parties,” Costello says. “But I’m in favor of an innocent or even romantic outing on a weekend afternoon.”

Students can take advantage of plenty of opportunities to throw an affordable picnic around campus and the Philadelphia area.

Students can walk about a quarter of a mile up Lancaster Avenue toward Ardmore and come across several small, sunny parks – ideal for loafing around on the grass. There is also City Park, directly across the street from Rosemont College on Montgomery Avenue.

For those who have the means to venture away from campus, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (formerly West River Drive) along the Schuylkill River is a scenic area with plenty of open space. The large Fairmount Park system has several picnic areas and open spaces, some boasting grills for the ambitious cook.

No matter the culinary experience of the party planner, there is one piece of advice that all should remember when packing a picnic basket: Less is more.

Cryptic as this advice may sound, it is as straight forward as three words can get. Take advantage of packing with plastic containers, making sure the bulkiness of the package stays at a minimum. Pack similar ingredients together, reducing the number of containers needed to transport food. And never bring anything you would be heartbroken to part with because the risk of breaking or losing items is higher when dining outside.

Eliminate the need for condiments by using marinated or pre-seasoned foods. For example, you can leave the salt and pepper shakers behind if you bring salted butter and peppered cold cuts for sandwiches. Also, if you have a particular dressing that needs some assembly, prepare it at home and bring the completed product, sparing yourself the trouble of bringing extra ingredients.

As helpful as it is to know how to pack, cost-conscious students also need to know how to allocate funds for an effective menu.

Let’s say you have $30 – about the amount you would spend for an evening at a likely disappointing movie with a date on a weekend night.

For this amount of money, a student can easily purchase $5 worth of non-alcoholic beverages and $10 of cold cuts and cheeses. This leaves $15 for the student to get creative and even a little daring.

This $15 should go toward setting your picnic apart from the generic sandwiches and crackers. Otherwise, you might as well just buy your date a pack of Lunchables. See the recipes below for wallet-friendly suggestions on what to prepare to impress.

Senior Amanda DelCore enjoys the challenge of creating great dishes for a low price.

“I love messing around in the kitchen, throwing ingredients together and seeing what I end up with,” DelCore says. “I’d be a little more careful, though, if I were cooking for other people, especially in the intimate atmosphere of a picnic.”

As an experienced cook herself, she recognizes the effort a well-planned meal requires.

“Knowing which flavors go together well and which ones clash is important,” DelCore says. “Every menu item prepared can be delicious, but if the flavors don’t work together as an entire dining experience, something went wrong.”

Even if the food isn’t gourmet, it’s the company that counts. Enjoying an afternoon outside can be a welcome break for students worrying about the end-of-the-year chaos of exams, parties and projects.

So take a chance, do something different and put your creativity to the test. Make a date with a grassy knoll and some good friends, and bring back the nostalgic custom that has so much potential for success.

Here are a few ideas from my personal repertoire of “accent” dishes that are sure to impress.

-Stuffed olives. $4 a jar. You can also do these at home. Store-bought products are usually filled with garlic or hot peppers. My version is filled with garlic and blue cheese. Drawback: not ideal if you’re looking for a little PDA.

-Roasted Peppers. $4 a jar. Again, the homemade version is much better. Roast the peppers in the oven, skin them, slice them and then marinate them in vegetable oil, oregano and garlic salt. Nothing beats my grandmother’s, but it’s worth a shot if you know what you’re doing.

-Ricotta-Raspberry Crudités. $6 to prepare at home. Toast slices of baguette bread with olive oil and pepper. Smear the toast with ricotta cheese, crack a bit of black pepper on the cheese and then spread raspberry jam on top. It looks fancy and is a flavorful mix of delicate flavors, and even an unskilled chef can’t mess it up.

-Marinated Mozzarella. $7 from the store or done at home. Cut the cheese into manageable bites and marinate with a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of garlic and some red pepper flakes if you’re feeling spicy. Spice is important; in subtle doses, it acts as a natural aphrodisiac, but if it overpowers the flavor, you’re in for a bland, flavorless afternoon.

-Glop. $8 for a small container, prepared at home. The name is a turn-off, but the taste isn’t. Finely shred Romano cheese and mix it with olive oil, minced garlic and finely chopped fresh basil (or store-bought pesto if you’re not good with knives). Mix it up and stick it in a portable container. Little work for a big reward in taste.