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Joanie's Picnic

Joanie's picnic

My friend Joanie celebrated her birthday a few weeks ago the way she does every year, gathering friends and family under a big oak tree in a park on the border between Berlin and Potsdam. It's a potluck thing and the spread each year boggles the mind. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Joanie's picnic is my favorite meal of the year.

The grasses in the park reach to your knee in June and Glienicker Park is a big and sprawling place, so it always feels like we've got the place to ourselves. Joanie and Dietrich bring tarps and blankets to make an enormous tablecloth and as everyone arrives, the table fills up with all manners of delicious things. It grows so much, in fact, that I couldn't capture all the dishes this year despite holding my phone over my head.

I'll tell you, though: There were homemade bagels, two kinds of Turkish flatbreads and baguettes. There were two different potato salads and little skewers of pickled asparagus. There were baked phyllo packets filled with greens and feta. Bulgur and beet salad. A salad that Joanie makes every year with potatoes, tomatoes and Romano beans. Homemade baba ghanouj and hummus. Carrot, feta and harissa salad (Joanie's birthday request from me each year). Quinoa flavored with red pepper paste. Roasted vegetables. Meatballs. A platter of dried fruits stuffed with nuts and marzipan. Wedges of watermelon and fresh apricots. A baking sheet's worth of Linzer torte. Another baking sheet's worth of Austrian apricot cake (from yours truly, it'll be in the book). There was cheesecake decorated with orange peel. Brownies. Some sort of fresh strawberry cake topped with meringue flecked with mint leaves. There was wine and juice and water and iced tea. And instead of plastic cutlery, Joanie and Dietrich always bring metal flatware and reusable plastic cups that they've had as long as I've known them.

The picnic starts in the afternoon and if we're lucky, it's sunny out. If we're even luckier, it's warm and sunny out. The big kids play soccer or climb the oak tree or go for a walk through the woods until they get to the water for a swim. The little kids run around in the tall grass or slip and slide on the tarps. The rest of us pile our plates high with delicious things and find a cozy seat to talk and eat. It feels warm and happy and easy - the ineffable comfort of being around people you've known for decades.

With Hugo around now, we have to leave earlier than we used to. But the nicest thing is to just sit there for hours, high up in the park, feeling the sun sink slowly in the sky until it casts the dusky, fuzzy light that makes Berlin summer evenings so special. The sun filters through the tall grasses and the air grows a little cooler and then it's time to pack everything up again, shaking off the ants and the crumbs, shaking the drops of moisture out of the plastic cups, folding up the tarps and then walking back down through the park to the cars, along the dirt path, thinking that next year can't come soon enough.