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Dykes on Dates: Here’s a Picnic Menu That Feels Fancy but Is Cheap and Easy

Welcome to Dykes on Dates, the series where I give you tips for date nights and day dates with a focus on long-term relationships. Last week, I broke form a little bit with a mini essay on family, marriage, and examining my parents’ relationship from the vantage point of my own. This week, I’m back to basics! The first half of the piece will be a guide to a great picnic date — complete with a menu planned by moi — and then second half is my little missive on how my version of this date went, which this week features HIJINKS.


The Date: Elegant Tiny Sandwich Picnic

Cost

So technically, this date was “free” for us, because I only used ingredients and things we already own! The menu I’ve designed below is geared toward items I usually already have in my fridge and can be modified based on what you usually have on hand. Even if you do need to buy some ingredients, it’d be easy to keep this date under $30 if you’re not buying alcohol.

Supplies

It’s also possible you might need to buy some picnic supplies if you don’t already own them, but the good news about my recommended supplies is that they can all also be used for future picnics! I recently wrote a comprehensive list of picnic gear for you to check out, but here are what I’d consider the true essentials for the menu/vibe of this particular picnic:

  • Plastic wine glasses (which can also be used for seltzer!)
  • Assorted bowls with lids (or just Tupperware, but I’m obsessed with the linked Target nesting bowls and use them constantly)
  • A cooler backpack (the linked one is the one I actually own, and it’s pricey but durable and great for beach trips, too!)
  • A blanket (you can use one you already own so long as you’re fine with it being outside, and I recommend something thick so grass doesn’t poke through too much)
  • A tray (Rifle Paper Co. has some really cute ones, and they often go on sale! I’ve also had luck at IKEA with cheap, colorful trays, but you can also just use a cutting board that you already own)
  • Things you probably already own, like napkins, utensils, water bottles filled with water, plates and bowls

The Menu

For this particular picnic, I wanted the menu to be springy, have almost an afternoon high tea vibe, but also be relatively simple/no-cook! Along those lines and because I had a box of tomatoes on hand, I decided to go with gazpacho, assorted mini sandwiches a super simple salad, and some bonus snacks.

The Gazpacho
Ashni wrote a really great simple guide to gazpacho during tomato season! It’s true that making gazpacho can easily be done without precise measurements or the same ingredients every time. You basically need tomatoes, an allium, an oil, and a bit of vinegar! I made mine with cherry tomatoes (not ideal, but it’s what I had), a few garlic cloves, celery sticks I had leftover from my bloody mary bar at Easter, green onions, a fancy pepperonici-garlic olive oil I’m obsessed with, and a dash of citrus vinegar. Throw everything in a blender and blitz it! Too chunky? Add more oil and perhaps even a bit of water. Some people like to throw a slice of stale bread in to blitz, too, which I did along with a shake of some red pepper flakes for spice.

The Mini Sandwiches
I made three kinds of mini sandwiches:

  • BLTs with leftover bacon I had in the fridge (also from the blood mary bar).
  • Egg salad sandwiches made with perfectly hardboiled eggs, dijon mustard, the Trader Joe’s bomba I’m obsessed with, and salt — that’s right, a no mayo egg salad! I love mayo, but I wanted to experiment with making an egg salad without it. If you hardboil the eggs to be somewhere between medium and hard, they maintain a lot of creaminess, and mixed with a grey poupon dijon and some of the oil from the peppers, the salad achieved a creamy, fatty texture without mayo.
  • Tuna sandwiches made with a packet of the Thai chili flavored tuna by Starkist, fresh dill, mayo, and mustard.

My process for making mini sandwiches is to make them on two full slices of bread and then cut them into fourths. I used just a plain loaf of country white bread since that was what I had, but these would be really good on shokupan.

Super Simple Salad
My super simple salad was made with just spinach, sliced cherry tomatoes, grated semi-soft goat cheese (like a drunken goat), and a dressing I made with olive oil, citrus vinegar, and salt. A dash of cracked black pepper to finish if off, and that’s it!

Bonus Snacks
To round out the menu, I wanted to include a few grab-and-go snacks. I went with the corn chips from Trader Joe’s (they are somehow even better than Frito’s) and the TJ’s caramelized onion dip as well as the “soft and juicy mango” (which is, it should be noted, one of Kristen’s nicknames for me) — also from, you guessed it, Trader Joe’s! Truly, no one does snacks better.

The gazpacho, mini sandwiches, and goat cheesy salad — along with the bottle of orange pet nat we grabbed — give an overall sense of extravagance despite being deceptively simple and cheap. I had everything I needed already, and I never had to turn on the oven or stove to prep! (I used my electric egg cooker for the egg salad and highly recommend it to anyone who consumes a large amount of boiled eggs.) And then the bonus corn chip snack rounded this menu out into the perfect balance of high brow/low brow I love to live in.

Alternative Mini Sandwich Ideas for Vegetarians
I don’t want too many folks to feel left out by this menu I planned, so I threw together some quick combinations that I think would make for good veg options, with a couple at the end that also work for vegans:

  • Sliced radish + salted butter
  • A fruity jam + goat cheese
  • Sliced cucumber + cream cheese
  • Sliced peaches + brie
  • Mashed chickpeas + sliced red onion
  • Sliced tomato + salt + vinaigrette

a picnic tablecloth background. photo 1: kayla kumari upadhyaya in a magenta jumpsuit with a picnic spread in front of her. photo 2: a picnic spread against a grassy background. photo 3: kristen arnett in a purple tee surrounded by a picnic spread

Now that I’ve told you how to execute this very lovely picnic menu, let me tell you how I fucked it up.

I forgot the gazpacho.

Like, the whole point of gazpacho is that it’s relatively easy and quick to make. So long as you’ve got a powerful enough blender, you barely need to chop. Nothing gets cooked. It’s basically a blend, taste, add, blend, chill type of deal. I placed my little covered bowl of gazpacho in the fridge and started prepping my mini sandwiches and gathering my picnic supplies.

When it came time to pack our bags and head out for our picnic at a gorgeous park about a fifteen minute walk from our place, I made sure I had a spoon for us to share packed in the little bag of utensils I was bringing. I scooped a dollop of sour cream into a small Tupperware container, because I knew Kristen would want some with the soup.

We walked to our picnic spot, the weather incredible, much cooler than it usually is by now in central Florida but still with a bright, skin-warming sun shining on us as it made its descent. I’d thought of so many things: the fancy wine chiller Kristen got me as a gift, extra napkins, not only the mini container of sour cream but also a tiny golden spoon in the shape of a shovel for it.

It wasn’t until we’d picked our picnic spot (one mostly shaded but still with a little patchwork of sunlight), laid out our blanket, and I started arranging the mini sandwiches onto their special tray that I realized the spicy gazpacho was still sitting in the fridge back at home.

I historically don’t do well when little things go wrong when it comes to the food I make. It’s not that I’m a perfectionist in the kitchen; in fact, I’m a bit chaotic in my cooking approaches. But even though I still largely do things my way, I still want them to eventually come together in the end. It may have not taken a lot of time or steps to make the gazpacho, but I am weird about my attachment to the food I make; it’s like an extension of me, especially when I’m making it for someone I love.

Kristen, on the other hand, is swift to pivot and also reassure me in these moments. In the most extreme instance of a Food Mishap, I once spent hours crafting a giant seafood tray only to pull it out of the oven once it was done and lose my grip, its entire contents — shrimp, clams, crab legs, corn, potatoes, onions, scallops — spill onto the kitchen floor. A gloppy, expensive mess. Somehow, I did not cry. Kristen is a huge part of that.

So as usual, she assured me we had more than enough food, that the gazpacho would taste just as good — if not better! — later. The picture I had in my mind of stacks of sandwiches next to a blue bowl of crimson chilled soup was no longer possible, but that wasn’t the point, right? The point was a date with Kristen, not picture-perfect content.

tiny sandwiches, salad, seltzer, wine, corn chips, caramelized onion dip, sliced mango

Now is when I confess that it’s a tricky thing to have a series like this, one I genuinely enjoy writing and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t mean that sometimes date nights feel like they’re for someone else, for you reader. At the same time, with both of our busy work schedules, it’s admittedly nice to have a very specific reason to make sure we’re going on intentional dates at least once a week. I don’t know. I think I’ll probably be figuring this all out as I go.

The gazpacho was the main mishap, but in a very Florida development, a beetle also flew directly into our caramelized onion dip, forcing Kristen to scoop it out. I’m used to this now; eating outside in Florida usually entails reckoning with the creatures and the land and the trees and the leaves and the humidity and just all of nature trying to press itself into you. The beetle initially fazed me, and then I got over it, faster than I got over the gazpacho.

We picnicked as the sun set, and after, we went on a walk by the water and sat briefly in lawn chairs on the central grounds of the college Kristen went to for undergrad. It was twilight, and bats swarmed overhead, occasionally diving for bugs. Kristen glowed in the golden campus lights and night sky, and I felt at peace with the forgotten gazpacho. What’s a good date without a little mess? Without a little left unplanned? Like an impromptu walk through a buzzing, bat-filled campus.

This series might have a clear structure to it, but that doesn’t mean our dates do.


Dykes on Dates is a series by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya chronicling dates with her fiancé Kristen and offering ideas, tips, and tricks for stoking the flames of romance. Have an idea for where we should go out next? Let me know in the comments!

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 813 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. I am also so affected by food mishaps. The other day I made a vodka sauce that required two miles of walking around my neighborhood to gather ingredients. I was so excited!

    I made the mistake of mixing the sauce in with the pasta before checking the consistency, and there were still little bits of cashew in the sauce. Ruined my night!!! :(

  2. This is an exquisite spread! And I am with you on the cooking mode – I make a huge mess in the kitchen but struggle not to cry if something goes wrong in the final serving. To the point that I have in the past just made things worse for my guests who’ve spent time consoling me that could have been spent enjoying the food that we did have.

    And I’m glad you mentioned the bugs because my first thought was ‘why don’t I go on more picnics? This looks lush!’ but then I remembered I live by the sea in England where aggressive seagulls run this city. Now though I feel emboldened to try for a couple of fancy-looking picnics this summer – will not let the local wildlife get me down.

    • yeah there’s pretty much nowhere to go in FL that doesn’t have a lot of wildlife and bugs, but I appreciate that about it!!! adds a little extra activity to the picnic experience of having to guard the food lol

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