July 3, 2023

Make the Perfect Picnic Plate This Summer

Fill your belly with these recipes from National Trust Historic Sites.

Some of the best summer days include laying on a blanket in an open field with family or friends, while you are holding the perfect picnic plate. This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation invites you to add some historic recipes alongside your favorites.

Compiled from across the National Trust’s Historic Sites, these foods are influenced by the tastes of the time as well as the effects of social, political, and environmental factors. Learn more about these historic foods (and the places) where their stories are told. Bon Appetit!

Cheese Straws from Brucemore

A blue table laid out with a variety of different dishes from Brucemore.

photo by: Brucemore

A table laden with various recipes from Brucemore. The cheese straws are in the top right in a cup.

Brucemore’s story charts the history of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Home to three generations of community builders, it was the second owners—George and Irene Douglas—who gave the estate its name as a nod to George’s middle name (Bruce) and his Scottish heritage.

The Douglases played a significant role in the industrial development of Cedar Rapids. George’s father co-founded the Douglas and Stuart cereal company, which later merged to become The Quaker Oats Company. While George Douglas started in his father’s cereal company, he later went to make a name for himself, starting a business with his brother, Douglas & Company (which produced linseed oil) and later, Douglas Starch Works, which produced several different starches.

Among the Brucemore collection is a 1918 Douglas Company cookbook, designed to showcase the company’s products, mostly Douglas Oil and Douglas Corn Starch. Their recipe for Cheese Straws is a delight and a great appetizer for our picnic plate.

Marinated Artichokes from Cooper Molera Adobe

Sea-Lion Artichoke Label, Cooper Molera Adobe

photo by: Cooper Molera Adobe

A look at one of the ads for the Sea Lion artichokes that were produced by Andrew Molera, owner of Cooper Molera Adobe.

Build in 1827, Cooper Molera Adobe is in what is now Monterey, California. This remarkable historic site shares the layered history of the families that build and lived in the region back when it was a part of Mexico’s Alta California.

The region’s artichoke industry owes its success to Andrew Molera, who along with his sister Frances, ran the adobe complex and thousands of acres of ranchlands. In the early 1920s, he discovered the edible thistle growing along the San Mateo coast, cultivated the crop, and formed the Monterey Bay Artichoke Growers, Inc., which shipped artichokes across the country under the “Sea Lion” brand.

Today, Alta Bakery, whose Chef Ben Spungin relies on locally grown, seasonal ingredients and bright flavors, incorporates artichokes in its menu. This recipe for Artichokes A La Barigoule from Spungin is a classic Provence springtime dish and a light and bright addition to any picnic plate.

Cantonese Poached Chicken from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City chronicles the immigrant experience in the United States, defining what it means to be American. The Museum explores the stories of the working-class tenement residents and how their experiences helped build the city and the nation.

One of the stories they share is of the Wongs, a Chinese American family who lived at 103 Orchard Street in the 1970s. Mrs. Wong along with her two daughters immigrated to the United States in 1965 to join her husband, Mr. Wong. Their hopes were to find better work and better opportunities for their children.

Two individuals, a woman (Mrs. Wong) and a younger boy (Kevin) standing on a New York Street.

photo by: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

A photograph of Mrs. Wong and her son Kevin in New York City.

The family practiced Christianity and also celebrated Chinese traditional holidays, such as the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival. It is likely that Mrs. Wong cooked a big spread, including a dish like Bak Chit Gai or Cantonese Poached Chicken.

This beloved traditional dish is delicious on its own or served with ginger scallion oil and a little soy sauce.

Baked Beans from President Lincoln’s Cottage

People picnicking in a grassy area in front of a historic site known as President Lincoln's Cottage.

photo by: Brian Rimm

President Lincoln's Cottage is no stranger to picnics. Here visitors enjoy the summer on the historic sites grounds during their signature Bourbon and Bluegrass event.

Baked beans are a quintessential summer barbecue favorite. They were once a common 19th-century breakfast dish in United States. They were a frequent Civil War ration where a cook would dig a pit and put a kettle of salt pork and soaked beans to simmer over a wood fire. Then the kettle would be left in the pit with hot coals surrounding it, and the cook would cover it with dirt. By morning, there would be a warm pot of cooked beans waiting.

According to President Lincoln’s Cottage, baked beans were a favorite of President Lincoln, who shared many plates with soldiers. Located in Washington, D.C., this historic site is where Lincoln lived for over a quarter of his presidency and made some of his most critical decisions.

Thanks to modern conveniences, we no longer spend hours cooking a pot of baked beans. This quick-cooking way from America’s Test Kitchen is a great modern way to add President Lincoln’s favorite to your plate.

Cornbread Dressing with Giblets from Shadows-on-the-Teche

Pantry, The Shadows

photo by: Carol Highsmith

View of the pantry at Shadows-on-the-Teche.

This delicious comfort food can trace its roots back to a West African dish known as kusha. Corn or cornmeal and salt pork or chicken giblets/gizzards were often part of the ration for enslaved people. The dish spread from enslaved quarters to plantation homes.

Set among towering live oak trees in New Iberia, Louisiana, The Shadows paints a vivid picture of life for the plantation owners and the enslaved people who lived and worked here.

Settlers in the area, especially Acadian refugees from Canada (later known as Cajuns), adopted many of the enslaved Senegambian people’s foods, including okra, rice, and cornbread.

The Shadows-on-the-Teche Cookbook offers treasured Louisiana recipes from the Shadows Service League. It includes a wonderful cornbread dressing with giblets recipe.

Caramel Apple Pie from Filoli

A view of an orchard with open grassy areas flanked by trees laden with fruit.

photo by: Willa Brock

A view of the Gentleman's Orchard at Filoli in California with ripe fruits on the vine.

Nestled in the slopes of California’s coastal range near San Francisco, Filoli is a historic house, garden, and nature preserve. Two families—the Bourns and the Roths—owned the estate over the course of its 100-year history. However, they are only part of its story. In 2021, Filoli highlighted four Asian American staff members who helped steward the estate, one was Kee Low, the Roth family chef. He had a talent for duplicating dishes from Roth’s international trips, including tamales and curry chicken.

For this picnic, though, look no further than Filoli’s Gentleman’s Orchard, which is over 100 years old. The orchard holds more than 600 apple, pear, plum, apricot, walnut, fig, and quince trees, a collection of rare and historically significant varieties.

You can get your Filoli fruit fix at the Clock Tower Shop which offers heirloom apple and pear butters from their annual harvest all year-round. The store also has an exclusive cookbook called Fruit at Filoli, with recipes for baking with Filoli-grown fruit, including a delicious Caramel Pecan Apple Pie.

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Haley Somolinos Headshot

Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

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