“Enjoy it while it lasts.” I’m referring to the short window in which we’re now existing in Mississippi; the few short weeks after winter’s chilly temperatures and before summer’s oppressive heat arrives. One of the best ways to enjoy our fleeting spring days is to get outside, roll out a blanket or quilt, and enjoy al fresco dining that beats “patio seating” hands down. Even better, before jumping ship to another state, take your movable feast to one of Mississippi’s scenic picnic areas and experience our state’s natural beauty while enjoying a meal.
Before we delve into the best picnic foods, here are just a few of Mississippi’s top picnic spots. Visiting our state parks is also an option, but since I’ve mentioned them before, I’ll stick solely to picnic areas.
1. Visitors from around the world flock here to see it, so it’s only fitting that every Mississippian visit the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum. Located in Tupelo, the small shack where Elvis was born is the first stop, but after touring the museum, chapel and church, a picnic in the 15-acre park filled with a young Elvis statue, fountain and shady areas is in order. It’s the perfect place to relax under the trees, enjoy a meal and revel in the memories of one of Mississippi’s most famous natives.
2. Another famous Mississippian provided a place for fellow residents to study history and picnic on his property. William Faulkner’s home place in Oxford, Rowan Oaks, is a favorite stop for literary buffs, but adjacent Bailey’s Woods offers picturesque picnic spots in a tranquil setting.
3. Speaking of picturesque, nothing fits the bill like a view of the majestic Mississippi River. Thankfully, both Natchez and Vicksburg built scenic picnic areas overlooking the mighty river. Natchez’ spot is called Bluff Park; Riverfront Park is located in Vicksburg.
4. The Jackson Metro Area is filled with parks and picnic areas featuring playgrounds, walking trails splash pads and shaded areas. One of my favorites is Madison’s Strawberry Patch Park, pictured on the left. Featuring a lake and lots of trees, it’s a small, quaint spot to roll out a blanket and enjoy a spring day.
5. Daphne Park in Laurel, mentioned on the HGTV show “Hometown,” has been a favorite picnic spot of locals and visitors for decades. Located near the downtown area, it’s massive oaks, old locomotive and quiet picnic spots have entertained outdoor diners since the previous century.
6. Kamper Park and Zoo in Hattiesburg offers a spacious 40-acre park in which to picnic and adjacent zoo for after-lunch entertainment. It’s a relatively small zoo, but a nice one.
7. Lastly, the Gulf Coast area boasts over 100 parks and picnic areas, but you have to experience Jones Park, located at the intersection of U.S. Highways 49 and 90. Take your pick of grassy areas shaded by palm trees, dine under one of the new pavilions or sit in the nearby sand, all the way enjoying the cool breeze wafting from the nearby gulf.
Now to the best picnic food. There’s no reason to waste the precious few balmy days of spring in the kitchen preparing elaborate dishes when many delicious ingredients exist that can be quickly assembled and thrown in the cooler.
Treat fellow picnickers to appetizers like fresh fruit slices and healthy raw vegetables. For the main course, go Italian, Mississippi-style, with seasoned cold meats, crisp bread, thinly-sliced cheeses, and fresh salads. Choose cold pasta, marinated chicken, vegetables, and pickles to keep picnic food cool and light.
If a picnic isn’t a picnic in your mind without something sweet, take along fruit skewers and crisp cookies to top off your chilled meal.
The same “think cool” guideline that dictates picnic food applies to beverages. Instead of heavy colas or plain water, pack variety of fruit and lemon-based teas and coolers to quench everyone’s thirst.
It goes without saying that outdoor dining disqualifies foods that spoil easily. Mayonnaise and cream sauces, cream or custard desserts, eggs, and seafood should be avoided if travel and dining time equals more than two hours. Instead, choose well-cooked sliced beef and chicken, salads with oil-based dressings, and plain cookies and cakes without creamy frostings.
It’s spring, so enjoy this time to enjoy meals on (or near) the ground shaded by our state’s stately trees. Whether it’s lunchtime in the sand near the water’s edge or dinner under the stars, nothing is more memorable than an outdoor springtime meal in Mississippi’s beautiful outdoors.
Overnight Marinated Picnic Sandwich
1 long loaf of bread (can be French or other crusty bread)
1-1/2 cups of olive salad (I use Boscoli Italian Olive Salad; found in condiment aisle)
1/3 pound thinly-sliced ham or turkey
1/2 pound thinly-sliced salami
1/3 pound thinly-sliced prosciutto or cooked bacon
1/3 pound thinly-sliced sharp provolone cheese
Slice lengthwise through the top of the loaf of bread (about 1-1/2-inch from top) with a serrated bread knife and remove top. Cut around the bottom section of the bread, being careful not to break through the bottom. Use your fingers to lift out the excess bread from the inside, leaving a hollow bread boat.
Spread half of olive salad along the bottom, followed by 1/3 of the four following ingredients. Repeat two more times, then top with remaining olive salad and close sandwich.
Wrap sandwich tightly in double layer of aluminum foil, then place in refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. To make a pressed sandwich, place between two hard cutting boards, then place a heavy weight like a cast-iron skillet on top to flatten sandwich, then refrigerate and let rest under the weight for at least 4 hours and up to overnight
When ready to eat, slice sandwich into four pieces through paper or foil with a bread knife, unwrap and serve.