Memorial Day conjures for me the sight of a polished vintage automobile carrying old Mrs. Whalen down the centerline of Main Street during the annual parade in my hometown in the 1980s and 90s. She’d lost sons in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The day that officially honors soldiers who died in war also unofficially marks the beginning of the summertime picnic season in the Northeast. Its approach makes me long for the picnics of my youth. There were cousins enough to field kickball teams and food enough to feed an army. There were folding chairs enough for the aunties who prepared all that food and uncles enough so that we kids didn’t have to lift a finger to help setup or break down the festivities.

As my family’s current picnic planner and green-eating sergeant at arms, I’ve compiled a mental checklist for pulling off the grandest picnics with the smallest environmental impact. I’ve written that list down here for your benefit and mine. While I can easily remember the air of solemn silence as Mrs. Whalen’s car passed my family sitting on the sidewalk in Lee, Massachusetts, 40 years ago, I routinely forget why I’ve gone down into the basement of my current home in Brunswick.

Oh right, now I remember. It was to pull out the picnic basket!

If you have good jam on hand, you can spread it over the cake before you ice it. Here, columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige uses homemade raspberry-rhubarb jam. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Site Selection: Pick a spot close to public transportation or along a greenway so picnickers can ride the bus or their bikes. Consider a setting that has sustainable design elements like rain gardens and native plantings that help reduce runoff and provide a habitat for wildlife. Some sites might have staff or volunteers on hand to talk to your gathered group about the benefits the park provides to surrounding ecosystems.

Paperless Invites: While I love to get mail, in the digital age, paperless invitations are the greener option. From free group emails or texts to paid digital stationary, services like Greenvelope – which offers outdoor-inspired design, calendar syncing, potluck coordination and RSVP tracking services – allow you to easily assemble your party without paper.

Menu Planning: It’s convenient to grab and go with prepared items from the grocery store, but such items can generate a lot of trash. Instead, visit the farmers market, which will not only yield the freshest possible produce, but also may offer items like oysters and cheese to start the meal, interesting sausages for the grill, and biscuits and cream for dessert. The growing variety of vendors at markets all around Maine has broadened the scope of many farmers markets, and means you can eschew unnecessary plastic packaging on your picnic.

Greener grilling: If your outing involves grilling, you’ll most likely be tapping into an on-site charcoal grill. Charcoal grilling can release over 10 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air per hour. Try more eco-friendly natural charcoal briquettes without toxic additives like coal, sodium nitrate and borax. Charcoals certified by the Forest Stewardship Council come from sustainable timber operations. Use a charcoal chimney or an electric charcoal starter instead of lighter fluid to get your grill up and running.

Drinks: Aluminum cans are better than plastic bottles when it comes to single-serving sodas. But hydrating in bulk is your best option. Fill large beverage coolers with ice-cold water, tea, lemonade or craft cocktails. And if you’re serving beer, use growlers or tap a keg.

Gear: Have your guests bring their own reusable utensils, plates, cups and cloth napkins, and food transport gear. If you must use disposable items, run with compostable dishes and utensils.

Décor: Decorate tables with reusable tablecloths and fresh-cut flowers in repurposed jam and pasta-sauce jars.

Entertainment: Consider Frisbees made from recycled materials, cornhole sets made from reclaimed wood and binoculars for birdwatching. Create a treasure hunt list and have participants take photos on their phone instead of taking the items from their surroundings, unless those items are trash, of course.

Cleanup: Waste from your picnic will be minimal. But do bring a compostable garbage bag for collecting food scraps as feeding the local wildlife is a bad idea. Leaving the place in better shape than you found it, though, is a great idea so pick up any trash you see, even if you didn’t put it there in the first place.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

The final touch: Rudalevige tops her Raspberry-Lemon Poke Cake with fresh raspberries. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Raspberry-Lemon Poke Cake

This is my made-from-scratch take on the Jell-O and Duncan Hines Poke cake my mother made for summertime picnics when I was growing up. It’s light, refreshing and reminiscent of incredibly happy times. If I have an appropriate jam on hand, I will spread a layer of it on the cake before frosting it with whipped cream. Find the recipe for raspberry-thyme simple syrup in my April 18, 2021 column.

Serves 12 amply

FOR THE CAKE:

3 cups (360g) unbleached cake flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest of 2 lemons and 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups (300g) sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature

FOR THE GELATIN SYRUP

⅓ cup raspberry thyme simple syrup (see recipe note)
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
⅔ cup hot water

FOR THE FROSTING:

1½ cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
Pint of fresh raspberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 13- x 9-inch pan.

To make the cake, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest in a bowl. Combine the milk, vegetable oil and lemon juice in a measuring cup. Whisk to blend and set aside.

In the bowl of stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the softened butter on medium speed until it’s smooth. Gradually add the sugar while the machine is running. Once all the sugar has been added, increase the speed to high and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing until the yellow of the yolk disappears into the batter before adding the next 1.

Alternatively add the flour mixture and the milk mixture to bowl, beating to combine after each addition.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon. Bake in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the top is golden brown, 27-30 minutes. Cool the cake to room temperature.

To make the gelatin syrup, pour the simple syrup into a measuring cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let the gelatin bloom. Whisk in the hot water until the mixture is smooth. Use a skewer to poke holes at ½-inch intervals all over the cooled cake. Slowly pour the gelatin syrup over the cake, taking care that a little bit seeps down into each poked hole. Chill the cake for at least 4 hours.

To frost the cake, beat the cream in a cold bowl until it can hold soft peaks. Add the mascarpone and sugar and beat until the cream holds stiff peaks. Spread the cream in an even layer over the top of the cake. Decorate with the berries. Refrigerate until ready to serve.


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