Three years ago this summer I got an email from a friend, a fellow food writer with an impeccable palate and a head full of good ideas. It was an invitation to a potluck, and there were about a dozen other Portland food journalists and industry professionals on the list — chefs, PR reps, cookbook authors — all of whom I had worked with at one point or another. Some I knew fairly well. Others just a little. But they were all women I wanted to know better. It was good company.
The subject line was something like, “Let’s have a picnic!” So simple. So straightforward. No one could have predicted this spur-of-the-moment invite would spawn a sisterhood, national press, and a fabulous cookbook.
Not even my friend Jen Stevenson, the ringleader behind what came to be known as the Portland Picnic Society. She said her goal was simply to get together with some like-minded ladies in the Portland food scene and enjoy the blissful summer weather the city is known for. But then we all showed up at Laurelhurst Park with our creations and passers-by literally stopped in their tracks. The spread was, in a word, epic.
The picnic table looked like something out of Dean and Deluca, or one of those dreamy Gourmet magazine spreads. People walking their dogs slowly cruised by, jaws dropping. The man-bunned slack-liners nearby kept losing their focus. Bold, balding old guys wandered over trying to trade old-timey flirts for handouts.
Poor old timers. Their charms barely registered. We were in our own little world, forming a sundress-attired tribe. Until that moment, we didn’t realize we had been craving a sorority, in the best sense of the word. We all shared the same unspoken goal of bringing our best to the table, not as a competition, but to spoil each other. In a world where cooking is more like assembling, and social interactions are silently typed out by phone, it felt luxurious to gather in person, for no other reason than to gather. And it seemed almost subversive to don a nice summer dress for the occasion, bring real plates and flatware, and present it all as prettily as we could, even if it meant taking two trips to the car or dirtying extra dishes. Our picnic was beautiful because we took the time to make it so. It was a team effort, and a work of art, and we delighted in it.
So, of course, it became a thing.
The Portland Picnic Society would convene almost monthly, rotating through the city’s prettiest parks. We had themes, sometimes inspired by the place (English tea near the Pittock Mansion), the season (Dungeness crab fest in April), or the mood (Spanish tapas at Peninsula Park). We even gathered in winter, spreading our picnic blankets on each other’s living room floors.
As always, we brought our best efforts to share, and as we ate, we talked, our bellies filling along with our hearts. We supported each other through rocky relationships and job losses, but also business ventures and new marriages. One of us had a baby, while another saw her youngest leave for college. Wherever we were in life, we were there for each other. And still are.
But with our bottled cocktails and stunning salads, the PPS had turned picnicking into an art, and people started taking notice. Sunset Magazine got wind and did a story. And Tasting Table. And then three close-knit friends in the founding crew — Jen, Marnie Hanel and Andrea Slonecker — decided to turn it all into a cookbook published by Artisan last spring. “The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket” is a sweetly illustrated compendium of all the best tips and tricks they learned over the years (red wagons as rolling ice chests!), plus dozens of recipes that go way beyond the usual picnic fare, things like freshly piped and garnished deviled eggs, tea-brined fried chicken, and lemon-lavender custards in mason jars, which was the show-stopper Jen brought to the very first PPS picnic way back when.
Even though I’ve been lucky enough to attend many PPS picnics in person and see these recipes and tips in action, I still learned a ton from this book. But most of all the authors have taught me how vital it is to make time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life: eating good food with friends, surrounded by beauty. To all the people who witnessed our picnics, whether you were walking by or spotted them on Instagram, I have my own tip to share: Get this book and start a picnic society of your own.
Lemon Lavender Cream Pots
From The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015.
Besides being the cutest thing since Bernese mountain dog puppies, these jars of buttery lemon curd are the ideal size for a single dessert portion, and they travel like a pro. When you arrive, top the lemon pots with freshly whipped lavender-infused cream and a flower petal.
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
2/3 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons grated lemon zest (about 2 large lemons)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 3 large lemons)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
3 fresh lavender buds or 1/4 teaspoon dried lavender
1/3 cup heavy cream
6 small rose petals or other edible flowers (optional)
In the Basket:
- Fill a medium saucepan with about 2 inches of water and bring it to a simmer over medium heat.
- Whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the zest in a large metal bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice. Place the bowl over the simmering water and cook, whisking constantly but slowly until mixture thickens to the consistency of sour cream, about 10 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter until melted. Strain the lemon curd through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Ladle it into 4-ounce glass canning jars with lids, distributing evenly and leaving at least ½ inch headspace. Tap each jar gently on the counter to distribute the curd evenly and smooth the tops. Wipe the rims clean, seal the jars, and refrigerate until the lemon curd is thickened and completely cold, about 4 hours. The lemon pots can be made up to 3 days before the picnic.
- Meanwhile, add the lavender to the cream and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours to infuse. Strain and discard the lavender and refrigerate the cream until needed.
- Just before leaving for the picnic, pour the cold lavender-infused cream and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in a large metal bowl and whisk briskly until soft peaks form (when the whisk is drawn from the cream, a peak forms and curls over). Put the softly whipped cream into a sealable container to transport to the picnic.
- To serve, use two small spoons to make oval-shaped dollops (quenelles) of whipped cream and place one atop each lemon pot. Garnish with flowers, if using.
TIP: Leftover curd? Spoon it over scones, pound cake, warm biscuits, or pancakes, roll it into crepes, or fold it into Chantilly whipped cream for an easy lemon mousse.