The picnic renaissance

Among the ways the pandemic has changed our lives, we’ve lost the sense of spontaneous possibility that comes with living in this small town of a city—but picnics can help reclaim it.

Growing up, going out to restaurants was reserved for special occasions. My mother, frugal and an excellent cook in her own right, imparted on me the concept of “Why pay for something you could make yourself?” So when we did go out, we ordered strategically. 

We ordered dishes that were interesting and elaborate, making sure there was a variety of ingredients, flavours and textures on the table. We rarely ordered appetizers: “Why would you want to ruin your appetite with breadsticks?” Her eye was always focused on the entree, the piece de resistance, the main event. But after this past year experiencing a world on pause, how do we even define or plan for a main event? How do we shift to focus on the present, on being in the moment?

Beyond all the ways the pandemic has changed our lives, what has struck me most is the loss of spontaneity and sense of possibility that comes with living in this small town of a city. Running into pals at the farmers’ market? Nope. Locking eyes with a stranger at the grocer? How can you really read the situation when you’re both masked up? 

There’s been a lack of love in this time of COVID as we’ve been forced to restrict our movement and make a plan for each time we leave the house. Being outdoors is what feels most like the blissful before times. Especially as the days get warmer and the fall of night is delayed, we delight in being able to safely gather with the sounds of joy echoing around us. As we’re sitting on the hill or at the Common, we’re savouring these moments of in-between, the casual arrangements and the unplanned instances. And how better to savour this but with picnics?

Picnics are a reminder of what’s possible for a life beyond limits. And why shouldn’t our food reflect this? Why be limited to a bag of chips? We’re not hunkering down for a storm. We’re taking control over this opportunity and treating ourselves to the delicious bites we’ve missed or have yet to try. In the spirit of being here and now, I propose picking a time and place to meet your friends. Pack a blanket, water, hand sanitizer and whatever else you need to get cozy. Then, have yourself and your friends pick up an appetizer or two each from a restaurant on your way over. 

Yes, I’m essentially proposing a potluck picnic. But it’s also a chance to explore the parts of menus you might not have made space or time for in the past. While there are many worthy options to pick from, I’d lean towards things that don’t require cutlery, appetizers you could pick at over a longer period of time, with flavours that are refreshing, sweet, savoury and bright. Tap into the way the sun and breeze feel on your unmasked face. Trust your and your friends’ instincts when ordering.

Or, if you’re still reacquainting yourself with the outside world, consult this list for picks under $15. Either way, when all your offerings are arranged together on a picnic-chic blanket, I’m sure you’ll end up with an assortment that even my mother would approve of.

7 prime picnic pick-ups from Stephanie Yee

Roasted red pepper and feta dip

A trip to Chef In The Kitchen—the take-out side of Mid-East Food Centre—helps any snack-related event. This dip is the perfect balance of brightness from the tender diced pepper and creamy brininess from the feta. While you're there, get some dolmas; nothing beats a tender, tangy stuffed grape leaf. Chef In The Kitchen, 2595 Agricola Street

Fresh lychees

If you didn't know Indian Groceries offers hot and cold prepared foods for takeaway, you're not alone. But for a unique picnic treat, pick up some of the juicy fresh lychees stocked in the IG fridge. Bonus: try a round of their refreshing mango-yogurt smoothies, too! Indian Groceries, 2585 Robie Street

Homemade guacamole

Has anyone ever turned down a good guacamole? Cafe Aroma Latino's guac truly honours the beauty of the avocado. Cool and creamy, it pairs perfectly with a crisp, crunchy tortilla chip or can be complemented by the homemade tomatillo salsa sold on the bodega side of the restaurant. Cafe Aroma Latino, 5780 North Street

Beef hawawshi pocket and fresh pita

Sold with a side of pickled carrots, the hawawshi consists of Kam Moon's thick and fluffy Egyptian pitas filled with tender, warmly spiced ground beef. While there, pick up a few extra pitas too. Baked daily, they make a perfect sponge for any leftover dips or sauces. Kam Moon, 2013 Brunswick Street

Vegetable rice noodle wraps

Salads are cool, but these Vietnamese salad noodle wraps from Red Satay are better. You get the crisp, quenching crunch of bean sprouts, lettuce and carrots, wrapped up with rice noodles. Served with a light peanut dipping sauce, you get the freshness of salad without the mess of cutlery and bowls. Red Satay, 1252 Hollis Street

Beef patties and festivals

The way the spicy aroma greets you, just walking into Brawta is an experience in itself. Bring souvenirs of this to your picnic via the signature yellow pastries and a few festivals: These slightly-sweet dough fritters, generally served with jerk dishes, are a comforting, yet bright treat on their own. Brawta Jamaican Jerk Joint, 1567 Grafton Street

Egg tarts and chamomile puffs 

No trip downtown is complete without some pastries from Kee Heong. Truly anything from their dim sum menu or pastry case would make a great picnic addition, but their sunshine yellow egg tart with its impossibly light flaky crust and the chamomile-flower-shaped puff are an official summer mood. Kee Heong Cantonese Bakery, 1532 Granville Street

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