“I want to have the kind of summer I had when I was eleven years old,” my husband told me on a recent road trip. “Where you just ride your bike, get ice cream, and hang out with your friends.”
I instantly agreed, although my eleventh summer also included a minor criminal streak. Juiced up on an endless stream of Minute Maid orange sodas purchased with quarters stolen from our dads’ dressers, my friend Becky and I set out daily to arrange the outdoor furniture at our neighborhood tennis club at the bottom of the pool. On balance, though, it was wholesome stuff, a golden time before inflation, Instagram, and Tiger King 2. Debbie Gibson’s hat was the apotheosis of chic, and the highest SPF you could find anywhere was maybe 8. Every day was sunny, simple, and, once tennis team practice was over, obligation-free. Every decision was governed by bliss, and every meal was consumed outdoors.
This summer, we’re reclaiming our ten-speed freedom from the Before Time. Of course, now we have adult jobs (boring), can drive actual cars (fun), and they don’t make Minute Maid orange soda anymore (probably for the best). But we can still pick up a picnic, put down our phones, and spend some time outdoors. Letting someone else do the cooking is a pleasant return to tweenage simplicity, and New Canaan’s many picnic spots are crowd-free and picture-perfect.
Picnic # 1: Walter Stewart’s Picnic Boxes at Waveny, or, as it may happen, Not Waveny
As you know, this column is sponsored by our hometown grocer, Walter Stewart’s. But the below isn’t commissioned or even sanctioned content; just my normal, everyday fangirling about the culinary gifts of their kitchen team. Like the rest of New Canaan, I appreciate their work year-round, and especially in the summer, when the desire to spend time in my own kitchen ebbs to an absolute minimum.
I’m not sure what I was thinking, planning a picnic at Waveny on a Saturday in June. Obviously, there would be a wedding there that day, and when the evening turned 55 degrees and rainy, which this one certainly did, there was no dry spot or overhang where we could stay out of the way of cavorting wedding guests, what with our blanket, our dog, and our picnic basket. Dressed in Patagonias and jeans for the weddingless April day it felt like, we gathered it all up and, to our dog’s great dismay, headed home.
As it turns out, home is a lovely spot for a picnic anyhow. We made a fire, hunkered down at the coffee table with some Gaslit, and tucked into our picnics.
Most fried chicken is great when it’s hot, but at room temperature, only great fried chicken will taste good. WS’s buttermilk fried recipe proves that rule, delivering punchy flavor without being obnoxiously salty, as fried chicken is wont to do. It comes boxed with their dense, sweet cornbread, coleslaw, potato salad, and whatever drink and dessert you want.
We also tried the lobster roll, which revealed itself to be Maine-style, but on a burger bun. Maine lobster rolls come tossed with mayo and celery, whereas Connecticut style lobster rolls are served warm, in butter. There’s room in my heart (but not the arteries that lead there) for both kinds, and I find whichever way I go, they’re always gone too soon, because they’re served on teeny-tiny New England-style hot dog buns. For anyone who, like me, has ever looked forlornly around for more after inhaling a lobster roll, this one was served on a brioche hamburger bun, which amounted to a huge, shareable sandwich. The lobster salad was lemony and fresh.
Walter Stewart’s picnic boxes come with other entree options–beet salad and a chicken paillard among them. They just have to be ordered 24 hours ahead, so if you’re planning on attending any of the Waveny summer concerts this year, just order them online the day before, grab a bottle of wine, and you’re all set.
Not capable of planning ahead? That’s fine. I’ve sourced many an impromptu picnic from Walter Stewart’s, in particular, from the refrigerated aisle in the middle of the store. In the summer, our fridge is never without a quart container of their gazpacho, because it’s the perfect summer dinner when you just can’t be bothered to do anything but crush a couple of Marcona almonds into something and drizzle it with basil oil. The grilled, sliced chicken thighs make perfect sense for summer picnics and parties. I’d do laps in the salsa verde they come with if the idea of doing laps in a sauce weren’t pretty disgusting. It’s quite possibly the ideal summer grilling condiment, zippy and herbal, and I keep my eyes peeled in case they decide to start selling it by the pint.
Picnic # 2: Bringing Our Apple Cart Haul to Waveny
Located in the quaint, shingled building in the middle of Mead Park, The Apple Cart is a picnic in and of itself. It opens back up each March, as much a sign of the coming summer as batting practice and forsythia hedges, and New Canaan takes notice. Owner Emad Aziz has garnered a cult following among the parents of young kids AND people who love a good sandwich, two broad demographics that pretty much cover the gamut, but there wasn’t much of a line one recent Monday. It would have been plenty to have our lunch at the picnic tables and listen to the tennis-y, ambient sounds of summer, but we took our sandwiches to go, feeling like we still needed some Waveny-brand sun on our faces after Saturday’s washout. An idyllic half-hour followed.
I got the spicy falafel wrap because it’s The Apple Cart’s magnum opus. You don’t go to the beach to avoid the ocean, right? There’s a texture party between the falafel’s crispy edges, creamy tahini sauce, and snappy bites of pickle, and it’s one I hate to miss. I know I’ll someday have to venture off-piste and try a Greek salad or the California B.L.T., but I’ve yet to wrap my head around it. For now, it’s me and my spicy falafel wrap, a summer romance until the middle of November, when Emad and his crew wrap out.
We laid our blanket out in the middle of Waveny’s field, a dry run for this year’s 4th of July celebration, while dragonflies the size of small helicopters buzzed the meadow nearby. In the far distance, a couple walked their dog. My falafel wrap disappeared quickly, but the delightful, summery vibe did not. I reminded myself to make this our lunchroom more often.
Picnic #3: Fireflies and Cucumber Sandwiches
The thing about picnics is that they don’t always go the way you plan them. When we picked up friends the other night to snack on homemade cucumber sandwiches while visiting the firefly sanctuary off Sleepy Hollow Road– a true New Canaan gem and probably the first dedicated firefly preserve in the country–I thought I had a rundown of the evening in my head. We’ll have our sandwiches, our summer ales, and a few laughs, and be home and in bed by 10. But, once there, our friend Robin introduced us to Bill McDonald, one of the sanctuary’s neighbors and founding forces, and New Canaan’s high priest of firefly preservation. Sandwiches would have to wait.
Where most Fairfield County houses (mine included) would have a golf course-y lawn, kept green and grub-free with the annual onslaught of pesticides and fertilizers, Bill has spent the past 50 years building waist-high meadows of goldenrod, rudbeckia, Joe Pye weed, asters and more, absolutely teeming with life. He walked us through them, explaining the thought and labor that growing a pollinator-friendly meadow entails. Twelve firefly species currently thrive in New Canaan’s firefly sanctuary, led there by a “pollinator superhighway” from his property. Pupated fireflies eat snails and slugs to survive, so while an ordinary gardener wants nothing more than to repel snails and slugs, Bill plants to attract them.
Fireflies need an absence of light to meet each other and get to their sexy firefly business. This is becoming more scarce as dramatic landscape lighting takes over Fairfield County properties. It seems you can uplight every tree on your property to rival the Four Seasons Orlando, or you can have fireflies. Not both.
As night fell and we watched the fireflies blink on, I felt the magic. I grew up in a firefly-less Western state, and the sanctuary felt like an arena concert, each firefly a fan. This is an imperfect analogy, I know, but the male-female choreography of distant lights felt musical. My husband murmured, “this is better than TV.”
With all that, we’d missed dinnertime altogether. So we wound up back at our friends’ house at 10:30, scarfing down the sandwiches on their deck. Still technically a picnic!
A note about the sandwiches: I was mostly faithful to this recipe for Indian-inflected cucumber sandwiches, making the cucumber spread from cream cheese, lush mascarpone, chopped cucumbers, shallots, and jalapeño peppers. The peanut pesto featured cilantro from our herb garden, and the whole thing worked perfectly on my favorite wild yeast sourdough bread. You might think a cucumber sandwich is too frail and boring for dinner, but this particular sandwich is a flavorful monster, and I can see myself serving it to friends all summer. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had Walter Stewart’s Whoopie Pies to put a cap on it. Next time you see them in the store, don’t be dainty. They’re bonkers.
A note: Peak firefly season is fast approaching, and I highly recommend that you visit this special place during the next three weeks. During peak season (6/26-7/9) the Land Trust asks that visitors register in advance to view the fireflies. You can do so at this link.
Unsolicited Advice: Just Buy the $19 Strawberries
There’s a somewhat controversial offering in the berry case at Walter Stewart’s: Harry’s Berries, a pound of which will set you back an actual sockful of purloined quarters. While $18.99 is a difficult sum to wrap your head around for berries, even in Fairfield County, even in 2022, even in These Trying Times After All The Other Trying Times We Have Already Endured™, they’re worth it. The way I see it: you can buy a few clamshells of your go-to berry brand, eat a disappointing few, and they’ll mold out in the refrigerator before anyone in your family feels like having one again. Or you can bank your berry money to buy Harry’s Berries once, and finish the box in a day.
Culturally, we’ve gotten so used to produce flown in from Chile and ripened with a blast of ethylene gas that we’ve forgotten what anything is supposed to taste like. Nearly everyone I know has been emotionally scarred by a lifeless, rock-solid chunk of honeydew in some Minneapolis conference room in January, but that doesn’t mean all honeydew is terrible. Tracking down growers with some agricultural integrity gets easier in the summer when the grocery store shelves and Farmer’s Market stalls are loaded down with produce at its absolute peak.
Enter Harry’s Berries, grown organically on a family farm in Santa Barbara (where they probably know Oprah) and picked only when they reach full color. They’re a strawberry’s very essence, grown from noncommercial varieties, so they taste just like the ones my dad grew in our California garden when I was eleven and didn’t realize that the strawberry patch, just like the quarters on his dresser, wouldn’t be mine to take from as I saw fit for the rest of my life.
So go ahead, buy the ripest, most luscious strawberries that (a startling amount of) money can buy. Better yet, buy some and leave them as a doorstep gift for someone who needs a reason to smile. Block off your calendar for a long lunch outside, and wiggle your toes in the Waveny grass. Stay out past your bedtime in our ever-fleeting firefly season. Get a Spongebob popsicle at the Apple Cart.
Squeeze every last bit of juice out of what summer has in store for you, because summer in New Canaan is as good as life gets for anyone, of any age.