Every Thursday through the summer, Christina Ricci and about 25 of her neighbors in Albany, California, head to the local park for dinner. The kids play, the grown-ups talk, and everyone eats great homemade food ― just like in the good ol' days. What's remarkable in these days is that this group of friends, who are just as busy as you and I are, have been gathering weekly from May into October for four years.
The weekly picnic tradition was Ricci's response to the realization that summers just didn't feel as special as they did when she was growing up. The park offered space for a large number of people (and diversion for the younger set), and sharing dishes kept the commitment light. "Everybody came, and kept coming," Ricci remembers.
Over the years, plans and preparations have been streamlined to accommodate tight schedules. The group chooses recipes that can be either made ahead or pulled together quickly after work or soccer practice. (See below for helpful potluck picnic strategies.)
"The picnics really fit our lifestyle," says Ricci. "Some Thursdays there are only three or four families. Other evenings there's a real crowd ― even visiting relatives. If it's been a hectic week, some come empty-handed. They know it's all right to just show up ― there will be ample food, and they might carry the ball next time."
In fact, now the potlucks just fall together. "We know more or less what everyone's going to bring," Ricci says. "I make spinach salad almost every week. A couple of people always bring kids' food. It's a very low-maintenance thing."
At the same time, the weekly gatherings have become highly important to these neighbors otherwise isolated by urban work patterns. "It makes you feel like you have a big community," says Ricci, "a big group of people who are part of your life." Satisfying results from such a simple plan.
Potluck picnic savvy
Choose dishes that can be either made ahead or assembled at the last minute, and that taste good at room temperature.
Supplement with buy-and-serve items like breads, cheeses, olives, pickled vegetables, fruit, deli salads, or selections from a market's salad bar.
Keep a picnic bag, basket, or box packed with basic supplies: plates, cutlery, cups, napkins, tablecloth, bottled water or other beverages, salt, pepper, sugar, paper towels, moist wipes, and trash bags. Include a thermos and insulated bags for hot and cold items. Store a supply of frozen gel packs in the freezer to keep foods cold for transport; return the packs to the freezer when you get home.
Foods that are transported cold or hot can stand on the table up to two hours.
To serve eight, you'll need one appetizer, one salad, one entrée, and one dessert. For 16: two of each item. For 24: three of each.
Allow one bottle of wine for three or four adults. (Barry Snyder sets a $10-per-bottle limit to encourage lighthearted experimentation in the spirit of the picnic.) Have a couple of bottled soft drinks each for kids and adults not drinking wine.