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WQXR Features

Feastings at Fests

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In New York City, food is culture and culture is food. During the warm-weather months, that symbiosis manifests as dining al fresco at outdoor concerts. On June 7, Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble help kick off a new season of performances at the Central Park SummerStage, also the site of food vendors from Brooklyn Flea, the weekend food market.

The Brooklyn Flea’s partnership with the SummerStage began last year, and, after facing a few unexpected challenges, they've decided to scale back this year’s offerings. Three food vendors (Asia Dog, Pizza Moto and Choncho’s Tacos) and one ice cream stand (Blue Marble Ice Cream) will be on the festival grounds, down from the five vendors that started out last year. 

The Flea’s co-founder Eric Demby admits that there was less name recognition by last year’s SummerStage attendees than he’d expected. “The reality is that the people who go to the SummerStage and the Brooklyn Flea crowd are very different,” he says, adding that many people who attend SummerStage events tend to be teenagers and those in their 20s. As a result, this year, the venue will not host the Red Hook Ball Field pupusa stand or offer lobster rolls by the Red Hook Lobster Pound. “The people there are going to eat food, and we want them to have food that’s pretty easy to understand—good, fresh, affordable and locally made alternatives,” says Demby.

As an alternative to in-park vendors, concert-goers can also work with independent caterers for provisions. Caterer Amanda Smith began her business nine years ago with gourmet picnic baskets geared toward parks goers. Each basket, which comes at $35 per person with a minimum of two people, comes packed with a main entree like filet mignon, miso-glazed salmon, or Tuscan chicken breast, as well as salads and desserts. Last year, Smith partnered with the New York Philharmonic for its outdoor concert series.

Speciality grocery stores like Zabar’s and Fairway also provide Central Park–accessible to-go alternatives. Zabar’s on Broadway and West 80th Street has long offered pre-made picnic baskets, though store manager Scott Goldshine admits that they’re not as well known as he’d expect. There are five different baskets, including one that features bagels and Nova Scotia smoked salmon. The meals are $22 per person and, as with all park-ready meals, include cutlery and paper products.

While Zabar’s only delivers to addresses, Fairway’s Upper West Side location will deliver to cross streets by the park. Bonnie Langer, the catering director of Fairway’s Manhattan stores, says that they are prohibited from delivering to locations in Central Park. She specializes in catering to groups six or larger, and serves sandwiches in platters and salads in catering bowls.

“Here in the city a picnic is never just two or three people,” says Langer, who often caters picnics for 20 or more people. “It’s a bunch of people who’ve survived the winter and happy to see the sun. If it’s only two or three people, they actually come in, grab a sandwich, or go by the deli case and buy some salad.”

Out at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where the Metropolitan Opera is holding a summer recital series, the fare is reflective of the artisanal food movements taking over the borough. Brooklyn Bridge Park President Regina Myer notes that, over Memorial Day, the park started offering food at Pier 6, in addition to existing food vendors at Pier 1.

“We really want to capture the moment with what’s going on with food in Brooklyn right now,” she says. “What’s happening is that people are realizing food in the park can be more than a hot dog and a piece of fruit. There’s a lot of newer, higher quality food that can draw people in.”

While Pier 1 already offers tacos by Calexico, mac-and-cheese topped hot dogs by Ditch Plains and Blue Marble Ice Cream, Pier 6 also brings to the mix Bark Hot Dog and Uncle Louie G’s ices. “We also have the Milk Truck, which has artisanal grilled cheese and milk shakes. Brian Williams would be thrilled,” says Myer with a laugh.