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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 10:55 am

Some enchanted evening

There’s nothing more glorious than a picnic at Chicago’s Ravinia

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“If music be the food of love, play on.”
— William Shakespeare,
Twelfth Night

It always enchants me. My first experience with Ravinia was as a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. It’s the oldest outdoor music festival in North America and has been the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1936, but classical music is only part of its summer schedule. The 2008 season, May 31-Sept. 4, has concerts — and sometimes multiple performances — almost every night. In addition to the main covered pavilion, there are two smaller indoor venues. There’s something for every taste. Performers this year range from the aforementioned CSO and other classical musicians, such as Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman, to Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, the Backstreet Boys, Buddy Guy, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Tony Bennett, and a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. (The complete schedule and additional information are available online at www.ravinia.org.) Picnicking plays second fiddle to the music at Ravinia. Like a second violin section, though, it’s an integral part of the experience, something I discovered when I morphed from a performer into an audience member. These days the festival has six restaurants, ranging from upscale dining at the Park View and Mirabelle to casual eateries and the Park Market, geared to patrons who want to purchase items such as sandwiches, salads, cheeses, and desserts for picnics on site. Still, most folks bring their own, and the procession of people bearing coolers, chairs, and accoutrements onto the festival grounds from parking lots, shuttle buses, and trains stopping at the gate (Ravinia was originally created in 1904 as an amusement park by a railroad company to increase business) is impressive. Aside from enjoying one’s own picnic, part of the preconcert fun is wandering around inspecting everyone else’s. They range from tables spread with linen and topped with bowls of caviar and silver candelabra to blankets on the ground with plastic carry-out deli containers. When our kids were young we kept things simple, but even then my husband and I were envisioning what we’d create when we didn’t have to carry/push/drag kids in addition to our picnic. In recent years we’ve created some impressive spreads (though never with candelabra and linen). The night several people stopped to ask for the name of our caterers, we gave each other high-fives. The menu included skewers of marinated shrimp and melon and crab-and-corn salad in radicchio cups. The highlight was a torta rustica, an Italian savory pie whose layers of roasted red peppers, greens, cheeses, and salumi are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate.
Every so often we get seats in the pavilion. It’s nice to see performances, but to me Ravinia is best experienced out on the lawn. Whether enjoying candelabra and caviar or blankets and Bud Light, everyone has candles. As dusk fades to dark, the grounds are suffused with flickering light. Looking around as the music begins, I always have the feeling that this is how life should be.
You don’t have to travel to Ravinia to combine a picnic with music. The Springfield Municipal Band plays at the Douglas Park Bandshell (newly renovated, with two wings added) every Tuesday and Thursday in conjunction with an ice-cream social sponsored by various charitable organizations. The Springfield Park District and Foundation host a wide variety of music (and movie) events over the summer, all free. Many are at the Douglas Park Bandshell, but there are events at parks throughout the city. The park district’s Derek Harms is especially enthusiastic about a new after-work rock series, “Alive After Five,” on the second and fourth Wednesdays in June and July in the Douglas Park Bandshell. Bring your own picnic or take advantage of beer and food vendors on site. Then there’s the 2008 Rees Carillon festival, June 1-7 in Washington Park. Check the weekly Illinois Times listings to see what’s coming up. Whether you travel or stay close to home, whether you prepare or purchase the food, combining the sensual pleasures of food, music, and the outdoors is one of the best things about summer. Don’t miss it.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
Marinated Shrimp and Melon Skewers

36 large shrimp, cooked and peeled  (peel the tails, too) 2 tablespoons minced shallot or mild onion 1/2 cup seasoned rice-wine vinegar 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon  
 or 1 tablespoon dried
2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper,
 preferably white, or to taste
One ripe but firm cantaloupe One ripe but firm honeydew 12 bamboo skewers, at least 9 inches long
Place the shallot, vinegar, tarragon, sugar, and pepper in a resealable plastic bag, at least quart-size. Seal the bag and squish it with your hands until the ingredients are combined and the sugar has dissolved. Let stand at least 30 minutes to combine the flavors, then add the shrimp, squeeze out the air, and turn the bag to coat the shrimp thoroughly. Marinate the shrimp for at least 30 minutes and as long as 1 hour.
Using a melon baller, make 18 balls (about 1/2 inch in diameter) each from the cantaloupe and the honeydew. If you are using larger or smaller shrimp, you may need to adjust the size of the balls accordingly. Make them as perfect as possible, saving rejects for another use.
Drain the shrimp in a colander, shaking to remove excess moisture. It’s OK if little bits of the tarragon and shallot stick to them. Thread a melon ball about 3 inches down one of the bamboo skewers, then spear a shrimp in the middle of the inside curve and bring it down so that the shrimp curves over and around the melon ball. Whatever kind of melon ball you used first, thread a ball of the alternate melon down on top of the shrimp and place another shrimp over it in the same manner as the first. Repeat, using another melon ball of the first kind. Continue making skewers in the same manner, alternating types of melon. Each skewer should have three shrimp, two melon balls of one kind, and one melon ball of the other kind. Makes 12 skewers.
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