Everyone loves a picnic. But if you’re headed to the 67th Running of the Iroquois Steeplechase on May 10, not just any picnic will do. With its rich equine history, the Iroquois Steeplechase represents an important part of Nashville’s heritage — and marks the social event of the season among Southern society.
“It’s so much fun,” said Brenda Black, director of the Iroquois Steeplechase. “People look forward to the Iroquois all year — it’s like a rite of spring. There’s tailgating, hospitality tents, box seats — it’s quite an event. People bring out their fanciest hats and fashions, decorate their boxes and bring in elaborate picnics with everything from fried chicken to beef tenderloin.”
Planning is everything
Without question, the Iroquois attracts the fastest horses and the finest fashions. But as with any successful gathering, a fabulous day of steeplechasing begins with a little planning.
“It’s really important to think about your food and how you’re going to eat it,” said Helen Hovey of Levy Restaurants, official caterer of the 2008 Iroquois. “You need to look at the time factor — are you going to eat right away, or would you rather graze all day?”
Most spectators seem to enjoy the grazing approach, which means proper storage and packaging is paramount.
“It’s usually a warm day, so storage is extremely important,” Hovey said. “Be careful in planning your menu, as not all foods will hold up in the heat. For example, we prepare our potato salad with a vinegar base, rather than mayonnaise. Food safety is key.”
Safety, yes. But elegance is still high on the list of picnic priorities. Before you break out the good china, however, you might consider some of the latest trends in picnic accessories.
From handcrafted baskets to coolers that provide separate insulated compartments for food and drinks, it’s easy to pack a picnic that is simple yet sophisticated. And because glass is forbidden at the Iroquois, most revelers opt for high-end paper or plastic place settings and cutlery. Travel flasks and acrylic wine glasses are also available. (Check out canningpantry.com, picnicworld.net and pinotboutique.com for ideas.)
“These days, you can find some pretty high-quality plastics,” Hovey said. “Our plates look just like china until you pick them up. It looks nice and it’s convenient.”
In addition, colorful linens and floral arrangements can also add to the festivities, Black said.
“It’s amazing to see how people decorate their boxes— it seems to get more elaborate each year,” she said.
But it’s important to keep the weather in mind when decorating.
“You can bring in your own table to accommodate your spread, but be careful with the tablecloth,” Hovey advised. “If it’s too short, the wind can easily catch it and knock everything off the table. A longer cloth could work, or simply bring some clips to secure it to the table.”
At the starting gate
Once you have set up your picnic area, the feast can begin with a few tasty hors d’oeuvres.
“Finger foods are a great way to start the day,” Hovey said. “We usually begin by setting out dry snacks such as pretzels, nuts or chips and then moving on to heavier items.”
For heartier fare, consider fresh seasonal vegetables with a dip or a nice selection of quality cheeses, crackers and grapes. And don’t forget something cool and delicious to drink.
Hovey recommends keeping it light and refreshing.
“A white wine sangria is always nice on a hot day. And lemonade punch is a good option,” she said. “You can drink it on its own, or mix in a little vodka for those who prefer alcohol.”
The featured event
When it comes to serious picnicking, it’s hard to beat traditional Southern fare, such as fried chicken and potato salad or ham and biscuits. Sandwiches are a perennial favorite, but special care is required for a hot day in the Tennessee sun.
“It’s best to pack your condiments and ingredients separately, so your sandwiches don’t get soggy,” Hovey said. “It just takes a minute to assemble everything, and it will taste so much better.
Hovey also recommends using heavier breads or pressed sandwiches that will stand up to the heat without leaking or falling apart.
“There are so many ways to go. We’re offering sugar-cured ham on a pretzel roll, or smoked turkey on sour dough, along with our chicken baskets. Wraps are always good, and we served pita sandwiches stuffed with a vinegar-based chicken salad last year. Those were very popular.”
For more elegant presentation, you might try kabobs or skewers for your main course.
“Kabobs are very easy to hold and eat without getting food everywhere,” she said. “When people take such care with getting dressed up, they want to be sure the food is not too messy.”
On the sidelines
Of course, you’ll want to include a variety of salads and side dishes to complement your main course. Pasta and bean salads are popular choices, as well as refreshing fruit salads. In some cases — particularly with more delicate items — it might be wise to pack ingredients separately and mix on-site.
“The key is keeping everything fresh and tasty, so you don’t want to make everything too far ahead.” Hovey said. “But you can get pretty creative with watermelon baskets and other nice ideas. Have fun with it.”
The finish line
A party wouldn’t be complete without a delicious dessert, but again, Hovey cautions picnic enthusiasts to choose wisely.
“A lot of people automatically think chocolate but on a hot day, it just won’t last. Even most icings will melt, and you’ll end up with a mess in your picnic basket.”
Cookies and dessert bars are yummy and portable, along with mini fruit tarts. Miniature pecan pies also are a nice way to satisfy your sweet tooth while adding a Southern touch. Cake lovers should consider Bundt recipes that do not require icing. You can easily slice ahead of time and store in an airtight container.