Picnicking is joyfully simple and spontaneous: a casual repast of finger foods in the great outdoors. Whether it takes shape on an old blanket with simple provisions or an elaborate menu packed into a fancy basket, it all works.
The art of the picnic is knowing what to bring, how to transport it and where to go—and making the time to do so. Western New York has a wealth of sites for perfect picnics as accessibly urban or densely natural as you please.
A handful of avowed and seasoned local picknickers allowed us to snoop inside their picnic baskets, each teeming with food, drink and other treats. Their foodie forays take place in a wide variety of venues, all throughout the year—rain or shine.
Susie Rozler teaches about music and nature, and works with Earth Spirit Educational Services and Niagara Falls Parks Department. Her list of favored hiking and picnic places is long, leaning toward the more rugged.
Her favorite spot is along Eighteen Mile Creek where it meets Lake Erie in Evans. “You can look for fossils there, but not after a big rain,” said Rozler.
More of her favorites: Letchworth and Allegany State Parks; Buffalo Creek near Como Park; Hunter’s Creek Park in East Aurora; Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario; Devil’s Hole along the gorge; and Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area.
She also advises to be thoughtful about what you bring.
“Don’t go nuts when packing,” she advises. “The more stuff you make, the more stuff you have to haul—keep it simple. I usually pack fruit, nuts, cheese, and bread. I bring water to hydrate, and maybe wine. I may also bring a thermos of coffee or tea, ginger cookies and dark chocolate. I always pack a sharp knife, paper towels or napkins, all in either my wicker basket or a soft cooler bag, depending on where I’m hiking.”
Adding kids to the mix
Peter and Kara Burakowski of Hamburg picnic frequently with their four children (son George, and three triplet daughters Ada, Rose and Greta). Their favorite picnic places offer lots of open space and playgrounds, like Chestnut Ridge Park and Griffis Sculpture Park.
“We also go down to Springville, right in the village. There’s a cannon and the kids think it’s the coolest place. There’s also a bandstand and the kids pretend they’re performing. They run around a little bit and then we all sit down and have a bite,” said Peter.
“Griffis Sculpture Park is a family favorite because it includes a beautiful drive, a hike and sculptures for the kids to discover and interact with,” added Kara. The family’s menu includes everything to make PB&Js, individual snack bags and fruit.
It’s a modification of the forays they had, pre-kids.
“When we would picnic before the kids, we’d have what Kara calls a ‘Heidi meal’ —a baguette, some cheese and fruit, all simple things that you can throw in a bag. One time she texted me saying, ‘Hey, after work meet me at Woodlawn Beach, I have a Heidi meal, and we can watch the sunset,’ ” said Peter.
Picnicking as meditation
Don Warfe of Buffalo favors a picnic site that he revisits often: Goat Island.
“It’s serene, remote and yet urban. I love the sounds, sights and smell of the water. When all of your senses are engaged like that, you can relax and escape whatever is plaguing your mind.”
He began picnicking not that long ago after he and his partner received a picnic set as a gift. Warfe also discovered he loved picnicking solo when his partner couldn’t make the time. “I just really got in tune with Mother Nature. I like that I don’t need to make any arrangements with anyone.”
Warfe makes his own food and packs it in reusable containers. “I usually do a protein and some sort of salad. I always bring fruit and, because I have a sweet tooth, dessert. The pack has a spot for a bottle of wine and a place for a thermos; depending on the time of year I’ll put hot apple cider or soup in it.”
Keeping things spontaneous
Sherry Burns and John Hoy of Buffalo picnic year-round at a variety of places throughout Erie County. A favorite is Chestnut Ridge Park on the Newton Road side. Other go-top spots are at the top of the hill at Tifft Nature Preserve (for sunsets) and Sprague Brook Park.
The couple likes to plan regular weekend outings and, after finding a great spot, send out GPS coordinates for friends to join them. Emphasizing the ease of picnics, they add that they don’t have to be expensive.
“We sometimes go on bike rides along Niagara Parkway, stopping along the way to have a picnic on a blanket on the river’s edge,” Burns says. “We’ve also put our bikes in the car and driven to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and ridden over to Niagara-on-the Lake, stopping at wineries along the way to pick up wine for our picnic.”
Burns advises new picknickers to keep things compact and use as little plastic as possible. “I wrap crackers, bread and cheese in foil to keep them from getting crushed,” Burns says. “A wooden cutting board can also be used as a serving plate. I bring glasses and tablecloths that I pick up at garage or estate sales.”
One of her best tips is to reuse wine store shopping bags—the ones with six sections. “They are perfect for packing food and cold packs. You can also take tea towels to roll the glasses up in, and shove them into other sections of the shopping bag.”
Helen and Andy Cappuccino have been picnicking together for three decades. Both wine aficionados, their picnic menus focus on that, along with cheeses that pair well. Charcuterie is also a highlight.
“Our picnics are usually in Ellicottville, somewhere on the slopes in winter,” Helen says. “We belong to a ski club and we can keep a basket right there. Our wicker basket has plastic glasses but they’re shaped like real wine glasses.
“A perfect picnic menu has hard and salty Italian cheeses, definitely parmesan, provolone, pepperoni, and salami. A nice loaf of freshly-baked French bread, too, is a must. Life is too short to drink lousy wine: we bring either a Barolo (an Italian red), or a California Cabernet.”
Picnic like a pro
Suzie Rozler says: “It’s good to bring a blanket and a waterproof poncho in case the ground is wet—I also bring an umbrella, binoculars and a journal to note what wildlife I’ve seen. I always pack organic bug repellent: remember to check each other for ticks. And wear a hat, don’t get too much sun.”
Kara Burakowski's go-to? The family packing list includes “a waterproof blanket, cooler, wet washcloths in a plastic bag, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, water bottles for each person and sunglasses.” Kara emphasizes that the best piece of gear is their waterproof blanket. “It’s great for bonfires on the beach and we even use it in the house for movie nights.”
Helen and Andy Cappuccino's picnic tips include “bringing paper napkins instead of linen because it’s easier for cleanup. Picnicking is a good way to clean out your cheese and meat drawer in the fridge, and to take a breather from the frenetic pace of everyday life.”
Story topics: Food & Drink