The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / May 06, 2016 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Nature and the arts - they go hand in hand. I love outdoor theatre (especially Shakespeare) and concerts, for they combine the best of both worlds - being outside, AND the luxury of watching and listening to the arts in a special environment. And, of course, when you attend a concert outside, you bring a picnic - snacks, beverages, meals - and munch the whole time. It's glorious, and a way of life that attracts everyone. So when Gina Hyams published her latest book, The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires, I WAS IN. I love this book, and have from the moment I saw the cover. Reading it upped the love - the recipes do so even more. Gina is a Berkshire-based writer and editor who specializes in food, travel, and the arts. She has published 12 books, among them Country Living Decorating with White (Hearst), In a Mexican Garden (Chronicle Books), and Pie Contest in a Box (Andrews McMeel Publishing). 

Book cover photo by Berkshire Eagle/William F. Plouffe, circa 1965, tinted by Christopher Hixson. From The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires

Book cover photo by Berkshire Eagle/William F. Plouffe, circa 1965, tinted by Christopher Hixson

See? It's gorgeous, glorious, enticing, and inspiring. You want to be there. And while the book shares how to experience Tanglewood, for those of us that can't make it this summer, it's a lovely stand-in. Read it while listening to Papa Haydn or your favorite composer, a plate of snacks at hand, favorite beverage chilling nearby. For if we can't BE at Tanglewood right now, this will take us there. Hyams' book is the essence of summer, of the arts, of eating well, of community and family and traditions. It's a glorious read, a trip back in time, a recipe book for your own picnics. Most of all, it's an ode to a way of life that we cherish - great music, loved ones, and eating well. Highly recommended. 

We were lucky enough to catch up with Gina, and ask her about the book, inspiration, recipe testing (lucky!), and more. Here's what she had to say... 

Author Gina Hyams. Photo by Carrie Snyder. From The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires

Author Gina Hyams. Photo by Carrie Snyder

Please tell us about your book, The Tanglewood Picnic...
The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires celebrates the eight-decade tradition of picnicking on the lawn at Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts. It's like a collective love letter to this quintessential Berkshire summer experience. The hardcover gift book includes 150 photos of Tanglewood picnickers from the 1940s through the present from the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives, local newspapers, and audience members' family scrapbooks; a dozen classic picnic recipes (summer corn pudding, lobster sliders, brownies); the ultimate Tanglewood picnic checklist; and a beautiful foreword by best-selling cookbook author Alana Chernila.

I asked everyone who submitted photos, recipes, and picnic strategy tips to answer the question: What do you love about Tanglewood picnics? I was surprised that more often than not, the answer was that Tanglewood picnics are "magic." Instinctively, I knew what they meant, but I made it my goal for the book to articulate and illustrate all of the picnic elements that add up to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Tanglewood picnics are about more than food, wine, music, and nature, they're about kids doing summersaults on the lawn, people knitting, sketching, reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing board games, and sleeping. What could be more relaxing than napping outdoors while the world's greatest musicians serenade your dreams?

Tanglewood picnics are the ultimate spa treatment. The thing, though, that is at the heart of why people think picnics there are so special is that the tradition is passed down through generations like a beloved family heirloom. While researching this book, I spoke to countless people who had first visited Tanglewood as children, who then brought their own children and grandchildren there.

Another thing that surprised me was how many people feel that Tanglewood picnics are a spiritual experience. The lawn is their church.

Ken and Robin Koval and Diane and Arthur Provenz toast to friendship at Tanglewood, 2014. Photo courtesy Arthur Provenz. From The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires

Ken and Robin Koval and Diane and Arthur Provenz toast to friendship at Tanglewood, 2014. Photo courtesy Arthur Provenz

What inspired you to write this book?
I moved with my family to the Berkshires eleven years ago from the San Francisco Bay Area and was smitten with Tanglewood picnics right from the start. I loved the grand spectacle of picnics on the lawn—how the tradition is both fancy and populist at the same time. 

This is my 12th book, but the first one I've self-published. About three years ago, my literary agent suggested that I write a book about Berkshire food culture, as there's  national buzz about the region's culinary offerings and she thought the topic would be of interest to publishers. I started writing an encyclopedic book proposal – farm-to-table this, artisan that – but found the only chapter I was genuinely excited about was the one about Tanglewood picnics. I decided that I wanted to pitch a gift book that would be only about Tanglewood picnics and my agent thought it was too niche of an idea to sell. Normally, when she gives a thumbs down to an idea, I move on to the next, but I had such a bee in my bonnet about this book, I decided to found my own tiny publishing company, Muddy Puppy Media (named after my English springer spaniel Goose who is fond of puddles), to produce it.

In retrospect, I think my agent was correct that it's an exceedingly niche topic, but it's proved to be a perfect book to publish independently because it's not dependent on national distribution to be a success. The book is now available at Tanglewood and about 50 Berkshire gift shops, bookstores, and inns, as well as via Amazon.

I love the recipes in the book - how did you discover (and test?!) them?
Thanks. In addition to soliciting Tanglewood picnic photo submissions from the public, I also encouraged people to share their favorite picnic dishes. In the end, I chose a mix of recipes from professional local chefs and home cooks. I put out a call for recipe testers on my Facebook page and within a couple of hours, two dozen friends had volunteered. I acknowledged the recipe-testing posse in the book and gave each tester a copy as a token of my appreciation.

Recipe testing is such an important step because even the simplest recipe can have problems that you don't discover unless you test it. The recipes from the professional chefs actually needed the most edits, as they were adapted from restaurant-scale recipes and sometimes the ingredient math wasn't quite right.

How can travelers who haven't been to the Berkshires or Tanglewood best get there and make a plan?
The Berkshires are in western Massachusetts – a two and half hour drive from both New York City and Boston. Public transportation hardly exists, so you'll want to rent a car. The nearest airports are Albany, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut. For event information, check out the Berkshire Visitors Bureau (http://berkshires.org) and a wonderful regional culture website called Rural Intelligence (http://ruralintelligence.com)

What is your fondest memory of Tanglewood?
My favorite Tanglewood picnic memory is when I took my then 16-year-old daughter Annalena and her girlfriends to see Carole King and James Taylor perform six years ago. They were hearing songs from "Tapestry" for the first time, and being moved by them just as I was as a teenager. It was magic to listen to that music together under the stars while eating a picnic of take-out salads from a local market called Guido's Fresh Marketplace. 

Gina and her daughter Annalena picnicking at Tanglewood during a concert by Carole King and James Taylor. From The Tanglewood Picnic: Music and Outdoor Feasts in the Berkshires

Gina and her daughter Annalena picnicking at Tanglewood during a concert by Carole King and James Taylor

What's up next for you?
I'm very curious about audio storytelling and podcasts these days and am actually producing a series of Podcasting 101 workshops with my genius NPR producer pal Susan Davis. The next session will be in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico this summer. For more information about the workshops, please check her website.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Just thanks so much for the opportunity to chat with your readers!

Learn more:
http://tanglewoodpicnic.com/
http://ginahyams.com/

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