Picnicking for the Nation's Birthday and the National Park Service Centennial
It’s time to grab a blanket, load the cooler and pack the basket. It’s traditional to have a picnic on the nation’s birthday. But as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite, nature-loving foodies have found another special occasion to dine in the open air.
On June 18th, International Picnic Day, Countryside Conservancy encouraged customers at their Howe Meadow farmers market to picnic as part of the celebration of the park system’s 100th birthday.
One-stop for shopping and picnicking
BethKnorr, director of markets for the Conservancy, says picnicking is a great way to relax after shopping for farm-fresh food.
“We see people gathering a few things and going and sitting under the trees to have their own picnics. We’ve tried to spur that on a little bit here over the past couple of years with some activities for kids so that they can stay here, spread out a blanket, enjoy some good food, which is surrounding us here.”
Lisa Pettit is chief of natural and cultural resource stewardship for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “It’s an incredible asset to this national park to have this market here.
"We’re standing in the middle of a very innovative approach to our research stewardship in the National Park.”
A well-loved market
Pettit says as it marks its centennial, the park service has been trying to become more relevant to the American public.
“And there is nothing more relevant than what you’re standing in right now. This is a well-loved market. This is bringing people back to healthy food, local food.”
Northeast Ohio has more than 80 farmers’ markets. Howe Meadow is the granddaddy. It opened in 2009 with 28 vendors. Pettit has watched it grow: "65, 70 vendors. We have more than that today.”
Countryside’s Beth Knorr says new vendors every season provide a cornucopia for shoppers.
“This year we have mushrooms which we’ve been on the lookout for for quite some time. And so we have Avant Gardens Farm and Mushroomery. We have a couple of fermented foods. Fermentation Girl as well as Wake Robin are now participating.”
Only two in the nation
Knorr is proud to manage one of only two farmers markets in the National Park system.
“There is one out in San Francisco. ... So, not completely unique, although our farming program is completely unique.”
Part of a mission to promote sustainable agriculture, Countryside Conservancy’s program helps farmers lease land in the park and then sell what they grow.
“This market was seen as an important aspect of the work we’re doing," says Knorr, "and it’s really grown.”
Farmer Dave Benchoff of Ashland’s Banzhaf Garten Organic Farm has been here since the beginning.
“I’m on a first-name basis with many of my customers.”
He was a firefighter who came to farming late in life and appreciates having a market for his produce.
“This has given us regional exposure. It’s helped a lot of farms grow their businesses.”
Serves the Park Service’s mission
The market helps the park, too. Lisa Pettit says it serves the park service’s mission of land conservation.
“People know the value of the land. People understand what it provides to them, whether it’s the open space and the relaxation or it’s the actual food that sustains us. All of that is conservation of this area, right in the backyard of Cleveland and Akron.”
For the benefit of the market and its shoppers, Chef Doug Katz of Fire Food and Drink created a gourmet picnic using what he found at Howe Meadow.
“We found out what products are available, and we made some great salads.”
Katz stops at the Red Basket stand for farmer Amy Arnold’s kale.
“This is more traditional. And this is Tuscan kale. I’d say this one’s a little fuller-flavored. Like a little deeper.”
“Maybe a little spicier, in a way," says Arnold. “A little more bitter.”
Grilling and picnic advice
Arnold finds herself chatting with chefs and home cooks alike. And now that the weather’s fine, about picnics.
“They come to us, ‘How can I cook this? What do you have? You know I’m thinking about grilling out.’ They want something different. We grow almost 80 varieties of produce, so we’re able to give them maybe a little spin on something that is traditional. We might have a couple of extra things that they wouldn’t have thought of using on the grill.”
Like that Tuscan kale. She says you can just lay the giant leaf right on the grill.
Gourmet farm-fresh salads
Katz used kale in a salad to put in the Countryside Conservancy picnic tote bag.
“We have a kale salad with beets, mushrooms, garlic scapes, radishes, and a sherry vinaigrette. ... All these things we got at the market. There’s another salad with chickpea and lentil, and it has local sugar snap peas, carrots, red onion, and a strawberry vinaigrette.”
Katz has a word of advice for picnickers.
“You have to really think through what will hold well and what’s easy to eat. And I think it’s one of those grazing experiences -- to be out and to hear whether it’s birds, whether to hear animals, whether to hear water, you know just absorb sort of the surroundings.”
Plenty of picnic spots
But, where to tote that picnic basket? Howe Meadow Market Manager Erin Molnar says her shoppers don’t have to go far.
"There’s a huge open field. Kendall Lake is really nice. Brandywine Falls. I grew up right by there. Indigo Lake is also really nice. I also like the boardwalk over the Beaver Marsh, and those are all super close. So there are lots of great spots all around.”
Park Ranger Penny Uhlenbrock knows them all and often picnics in the park with her own family.
“We have some favorite ones, like around the Octagon shelter and the Ledges shelter area. Tables are there, and plenty of shade, and a lot of them have the grills as well.”
If you missed International Picnic Day, there’ll be another chance to celebrate the park service centennial next month. Chef Katz will be packing those tote bags again, along with Chef Ernie Cornelius of DBA Akron and Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen, who also farms in the park at his Spice Acres.
Howe Meadow’s Erin Molnar says another attraction at the Aug. 20th Picnic in the Park will be the annual tomato tasting.
"Farmers bring upwards of 75 varieties of tomatoes to sample. They range in color from white to black, and they range in flavor from smoky to really sweet like candy.”
She says it’s the market’s most popular event of the year.