Dishing It Out
Tanglewood Competitive Picnic Leaguers are in it for the win
On Competitive Picnic days, participants set up elaborate spreads on Tanglewood’s lawn.
Photos by John Stanmeyer
The Tanglewood Competitive Picnic League started as a joke among Boston Symphony Orchestra spouses five years ago. Avid cooks Aaron Dunning, whose wife, Rebecca Gitter, plays violin in the orchestra and Linda Campos, whose husband, Adam Esbensen, plays cello, decided on a whim to invite a few fellow BSO couples to flex their culinary muscles with picnic themes related to the Sunday afternoon concerts.
“I think we, the spouses, all needed a creative outlet while we were out there in the Berkshires,” says Campos. “Tongue in cheek, I called it the ‘BSO Wives Club Competitive Entertaining League’ after a phrase I heard on a mansion tour in Newport, Rhode Island,” says Dunning.
For the first few years, the group focused exclusively on making creative food rather than on fancy table settings or competing for prizes. They had fun researching Austrian food for a Mozart program, German cuisine for Wagner, and Russian treats for Tchaikovsky. “Once, for a French program, we had a charcuterie picnic theme, and everybody made all kinds of crazy gelled things,” says Campos.
Two summers ago, the group decided to open its festivities to the public and initiated voting and awards. The culinary themes are now less tied to specific composers. Prizes, which are donated by local businesses, are always picnic related—a picnic blanket from McKimmie Co., a tote bag from Design Menagerie, cookbooks from Guido’s Fresh Marketplace. Eight to 30 or so people typically show up to participate in the picnics, with competitors ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something.
On Competitive Picnic League days, Campos goes early to set up tarps and blankets on the back of the Tanglewood lawn. “On a hot, sunny afternoon, that space underneath the shaded trees is prime real estate. We sit there because a lot of people have kids and we don’t want to disrupt audience members who are serious about listening to the concert,” she says.
JeriLynne Frankenhoff Clifford of Lenox was the first non-BSO member to join the league. She learned about it via a friend on Facebook. Seth MacFarlane was singing show tunes from the ’50s with the Pops and the picnic theme was food inspired by TV dinners of that era. “I made a Thanksgiving rollup with all of the goodies inspired by a turkey TV dinner,” she says. “I was excited to see so many people involved and their take on the theme. It was a great day all around and I was hooked.”
Clifford’s husband, Scot (whom she deems “Team Clifford’s Head of Logistics and Transportation”), figures out how best to pack their wagon and sets up their portable table on the lawn. She goes all out with picnic décor—tablecloth, fresh flowers, a candelabra.
“I will even have my clothes match if it’s possible. My friends and family tease me about it. I have been called Berkshire Contessa and a Berkshires Martha Stewart because I go a little over the top,” Clifford says.
Anna Shippee of Lenox certainly made a memorable debut with her first competitive picnic entry. The week’s theme was “Mad Men” food from the 1960s. She made a gigantic Baked Alaska, which she torched on the lawn. It consisted of chocolate cake and two quarts of coffee ice cream, topped with a chocolate-bourbon sauce. “We [she and her husband, Kameron Spaulding] had reserved dry ice, but the store sold it, so we had to get creative and packed it in ice in a huge cooler,” she says.
Adds Campos: “That Baked Alaska takes the cake. I think it’s probably the only Baked Alaska that’s ever been brought to a picnic at Tanglewood.”
Dunning’s favorite thing about being a member of the league is coming up with dishes to fit the weekly theme and staying light-hearted about it all. For a New England-themed picnic, for example, he made decadent grilled-bacon Fluffernutter sandwiches with cabernet-elderberry glaze (using elderberries he’d personally harvested from a tree at his summer home).
Everyone who brings food or drink to the picnics gets to cast a vote for their favorite dish or table styling. League members vary in their level of seriousness about competing. “You always want to win, but some weeks someone else has the best dish and it wasn’t you. At least you got to eat some of it!” says Shippee.
“It isn’t cutthroat or anything, but we are in it to win it for sure,” says Clifford. “I would still participate if there weren’t prizes but having that as a goal does push you to step up your game.”
Four picnic events are planned for this summer. For the schedule and themes, see the group’s Facebook page, “Competitive Picnic League.”