The notion of a picnic breakfast to celebrate the summer solstice was born on a bitter, stormy winter solstice night. On that chilly December evening, Susie Tompkins Buell, the cofounder of Esprit (now a political activist, organic gardener and amateur triathlete), and her husband, Mark, had gathered some friends at their seaside house north of San Francisco, and we decided to go down to the beach to take advantage of an unusually low tide.
As we trudged across the wet sand toward the distant waves at the edge of the Western world, the wind howling in our ears, the seascape transformed by the powerful pull of a new moon, Susie had the idea of repeating the experience on the summer solstice. The panorama would be just as miraculous but the weather gentler. Later, as we warmed ourselves by the fire back at the Buell homestead, we checked the tide book and discovered that the summer solstice, June 21, would in fact coincide with an exceptionally low tide. A ritual had been initiated.
Six months later, we were back on the same beach, this time for a picnic breakfast to commemorate the first day of summer--and the year's earliest sunrise, at 5:48. Susie and Mark and their sleepy grandchildren Willa and Gardner led the way. The sun was rising softly out on the clam patch as a great blue heron watched a flock of prehistoric-looking pelicans dive for sardines. The children climbed over slippery rocks and scoured the tide pools for starfish and urchins, laughing as buried clams sent up squirts of water. Garlands of seaweed were strewn all around us like streamers from last night's party.
Everything in our picnic was local and organic, honoring both the way we like to eat and the natural beauty all around us. Susie handed the kids sandwiches of smoked salmon, watercress and fromage blanc on soda bread. "When I used to spend my summers here," she told them, "my mother, your great-grandmother, would lower sandwiches to me in a basket." As the children looked for heart-shaped rocks in the spot Susie had as a girl, Mark pointed to the place where the salmon we were eating had been caught just a few weeks earlier.
Something about the salty air and the early hour made us want to devour the food we had made the night before. We unscrewed thermoses of hot coffee spiked with local Straus Family Creamery milk to get our hearts ticking and laid the breakfast on some stones. Susie had decided upon a vegetable frittata because the garden was full of ideal ingredients and because a frittata always tastes better the second day. This one was filled with tender fava beans, sorrel and pattypan squash that Susie and Willa had picked at sunset the previous evening. After consuming the fresh berries tossed with Meyer lemon marmalade, we polished off the date-and-cheese sandwiches on date-nut bread. They too have a way of improving, their flavors melding, with a little time; plus they travel well. The lavender shortbread was pure folly--cookies at 6:00 a.m.! Everything was wrapped the old-fashioned way, in wax paper and twine.
As we poked around the tide pools, not willing to call it a morning, we promised the children we'd return to pay homage to the solstice, this extravagant extreme of nature.
Peggy Knickerbocker is a food writer and cookbook author living in San Francisco.