As someone who loves (a) picnics and (b) judging things, I jumped at the chance a few summers ago to help preside over the Grant Park Music Festival’s annual picnic contest. Here are a few lessons I gleaned from the experience:
1. Planning is everything.
You could just ask your friends to bring their favorite dishes, but who wants six pasta salads? The best picnics have foods that make sense together and options for the beginning (cheeses, dips, finger foods), middle (sandwiches or a main dish), and end (something sweet). A theme, whether it’s French country cooking or the color green, can help focus the menu. (The theme of the Grant Park contest was inspired by the night’s classical music selections.)
2. Gussy up the table.
Actually, first of all, bring a table. Nothing is less elegant than sitting on the ground passing around deviled eggs in a plastic container. The standout picnics featured tablecloths, candles (get ones that repel bugs), ice buckets to chill beverages, trays and bowls to serve, and vases of flowers. Skip plasticware and use real plates, glasses, and utensils.
3. Think big.
Your first visit to Ravinia in two years is a special occasion; this is not a time for grocery store sandwiches. One group at the contest I judged created meal courses like at a restaurant: amuse-bouches on skewers, a salad course, and a main. Some served fancy apps, like shrimp cocktail or caviar nestled in ice trays. Others had beverages to pair with each course. Which brings us to what to drink: When in doubt, bubbly.