Fresh water is all one can see when standing at the edge. The waves, previously frozen, have melted, and rhythmically meet the shore. It’s finally warm enough to relax. The few people who are present inch their toes forward in the sand to test the lake temperature. The breeze may be warm, but the water is still chilly enough that they pull their toes back quickly. Trees behind the dunes explode in lush shades of green. It’s springtime at Lake Michigan.
The older I get, the more I appreciate what a luxury it is to live within biking distance of these shores. Away from the hustle of life, the lake offers space to slow down and drink in fresh air. My breathing immediately becomes deeper and my worries fade; the lake demanding my full presence.
I venture out to these shores year round. Sometimes I am alone, especially during winter months when the air bites. Summer and even fall at the lake are full, locals and tourists head down as often as possible to immerse themselves, splashing in the water as the sky turns crimson and gold. This is really the only time to venture in, unless you’re like my son, who will test the waters as long as the ice is gone. In spring, as the lakeshore wakes up from colder, darker days, the air brims with possibility of the season ahead.
As the days get longer and nights get warmer, I find myself dreaming of the first picnic of the year. There is nothing as delicious as gathering friends on the beach to share food, toss a frisbee around, and laugh with each other. This time of year coincides perfectly with the return of local farmers’ markets. I look forward to opening day at the market like a child anticipates their birthday party. The first market of the year offers thick, bright green stalks of asparagus, blush-colored rhubarb, herb starters for home gardening, and endless pots of vivid fuchsia, deep purple, and sunny yellow sweet pea blossoms. My menu planning starts at the farmer’s market: what can I pick up in the days before the party from farmers whose faces have become familiar?
For the first lakeside picnic of the year I want the vibe to be seasonal, fun, and memorable. Asparagus and lemon pair with quinoa and feta for a light, springy salad. Caramelized onions and vibrant, oven-roasted tomatoes add flavor worth the time, and preparing them in the days before the party alleviates any last minute stress. Chicken marinates in a yogurt mixture overnight, resulting in tender grilled skewers and only a few minutes of hands-on time before the party. Rhubarb and raspberries make for a juicy, tart treat at the end of the meal. This menu hits that sweet spot of delicious and indulgent without feeling heavy.
Joining in the fun are three other couples and our group of eight feels like a party, but preserves intimacy and conversation. I greet guests with a strawberry-basil-ginger cocktail and request to carry something down to the beach. We carry a few blankets, a cooler and a large picnic basket. Instead of worrying about washing up I bring bamboo plates and disposable cutlery. A simple bouquet of flowers from the farmer’s market provides a pop of color against the endless blue of the lake.
We fill our plates and gather in a circle, golden sunshine on our shoulders and the sound of waves gently hitting the shores.
In the sunshine, I take a moment to appreciate the day: local food prepared with love, a breeze off the lake, and laughter. The beauty of a picnic is that it prevents us from making things too complicated. Spring is lively and welcome, and dining outdoors with friends is the ultimate celebration of fresh air.
This story was featured in Spoonful’s Spring ’17 issue, “Air.” For more creative gatherings, party planning guides, seasonal recipes and lush photography in full-color print, become a Spoonful subscriber today!
Photos by Nicholas Gang