Okay, I’ve lost my enthusiasm this summer for budget dining in the Pascagoula area. Especially for anything with “buffet” or “all you can eat” as part of their offering.
Maybe its the continued slump in the economy, but we’re seeing a slump in quality locally too. I’m also heartily sick of Chinese buffets. I have concluded that all Chinese buffets use the exact same vendor and recipe book, and they get together to schedule regional menus. It is so uniform that I feel like I am in the same restaurant, over and over.
Barnhill’s and their sanitation issues have grossed me out enough that I will not dine there again, and GM’s knee has almost healed after twisting it when slip n’ sliding around their buffet line and the grease covered tiles. I don’t want to imagine what it looks like in the kitchen where customers can’t see…it’s horrifying enough to just visit the bathrooms. It’s even grosser when you realize that these are the same restrooms used by staff members. (Don’t think about that as you recall the cashier touched your change or handed you your credit card and receipt…as you wonder about hand washing habits.)
KFC on Denny Avenue wasn’t much better on a recent visit. Every table was unwashed, food debris littered the dining area, the food on the buffet line looked like it had been there since lunch (it was 5 pm) and had crevasses appearing in the mashed potatoes, and the rice…had gone brown. The doors leading both to the kitchen and the restrooms had ground-in grime deep enough that it had given the wood doors a pseudo-antique look. Yum.
The Annex is still the same–clean, reasonable prices, good food, good service, but not open for dinner. I haven’t managed to try the Heritage House–but it is now open for Friday and Saturdays dinners. I don’t recall their prices and whether they would actually qualify as “budget eats” or not, but most days, they are a lunch-only venue. Pascagoula seems long on lunches, and a bit shy in the dinner department. Apparently, any time anyone wants a “special” dinner out, they head to Gulfport/Biloxi or Mobile for the occasion, which is a shame. Pascagoula doesn’t even seem to have a bakery/coffee house, which I normally love to visit. I love to splurge on a gourmet cup of coffee and a sweet of some kind on occasion, actually more often than I am inclined to head out to either lunch or dinner!
From what I’ve seen so far, the most budget friendly way to have a meal “out” without breaking the bank is to do the traditional family picnic. The Pascagoula Beach Park is a great place for the occasion, but you’ll have to beat off the flies, so make sure to have covers for the food. (That’s pretty much a summer issue everywhere, and has nothing to do with a lack of cleanliness in the park.)
If you want to keep the fuss to a minimum, along with the costs, preparing the majority of the dishes at home is a good start. Also remember that cold dishes need to be kept cold, and hot ones hot…or you run the risk of food poisoning, a sure way to ruin a great weekend!
Barbecuing at the park is an option, but not everyone wants to deal with the hassle of taking charcoal, starter, etc. to do the job. It’s really much easier to cut out that expense and leave the barbecuing for meals at home, and stick with the more traditional “cold” picnic.
Generations ago, a typical American picnic would probably feature fried chicken, potato salad, fresh rolls or biscuits, and an apple (or other seasonal fruit) pie. A chilled melon or homemade ice cream might also make an appearance. Now few of us are going to do that cooking just before departing for our picnic, but much of it can be made (or bought) ahead of time. We’re also likely to skip the pie and ice cream as we eye our waistlines, and stick with the chilled melons, still widely available. These melons are best chilled in the refrigerator about 24 hours in advance so that they are thoroughly chilled to the center. Don’t forget the knife!
Sticking to the basics, using a cooler, and using re-usable plastic picnicware means that a picnic doesn’t cost a fortune and its a great way to get out and enjoy yourself in a different environment.
It can be a romantic picnic too! (Just remember, no wine at the Pascagoula Beach Park!) A loaf of bakery French bread, some of your favorite cheese (try hoop cheese, smoked provolone, baby Swiss, or your favorite) and a bottle of wine, lightly chilled, can turn a bench or blanket alongside the river or beach into a romantic picnic.
Need something more kid friendly? Chicken nuggets are among the most popular food among the toddler to primary grade set, and can be cooked at home, then chilled for the trip. Served cold with a dip that appeals to the kids, and you have a hit. Accompanying the nuggets with healthy-habit foods such as raw vegetables with the same dip, and you have a start on healthy eating habits at the same time. For the moms along for the occasion, try serving a fruit & vegetable rich chicken salad rolled up inside of a lettuce leaf for fantastic flavor and simple eating. Just secure the lettuce leaf with a toothpick and wrap them individually in plastic wrap. Make sure to get all trash to the trash can though!
Teens are voracious feeders, often with a lot in common with piranhas. At the same time, they can be picky eaters and girls are often worried excessively about their weight. They can present a tough crowd to feed! Raw vegetables and dip are a good option–the variety usually has something for everyone. Wraps or burritos can be a convenient offering too–try fillings like the chicken salad with veggies & chopped apple or orange slices, refried beans with minced onion and sour cream, minced celery with chopped chicken, shredded cheese, and enough mayonnaise to bind it together…or your own favorite recipes. Adding a pizza or two from a take out on your way is also a sure-fire teen appeal. Don’t forget plenty of soft drinks and to include some diet offerings in the mix.
Seniors love picnics as much as anyone, and maybe appreciate the experience more than many. At the same time, their tastes may be a bit different than some of the other age groups. Seniors may prefer easier-to-chew food due to problems with dentures or their own teeth. Often, they like small portions, and to “graze” longer than most adults, as they have learned to appreciate the company and conversations more. Sandwiches with a variety of fillings is always a good start, and easy to prepare, but cut sandwiches into quarters rather than leaving them whole. Arrange sandwiches on plates/platters, cover with plastic wrap, and plan on bringing out a small portion from the cooler at a time. Serve condiments separately–diet restrictions are often a part of a senior’s life, and knowing whether they can have mayo or mustard is best left to the individual. Also, for make-ahead sandwiches, leave items such as lettuce, pickles, onion, and tomatoes for adding at the last minute. Arrange these items on plates, covered with plastic wrap, which can then be stacked in the cooler, bringing out only what is needed. An alternative is to bring along the items, only slicing what you need as you need it, adding it to the plates. When serving wraps, cut the roll into thirds for a smaller serving.
Pasta salads, potato salads, and other prepared and mixed salads are another hit with seniors as well as other adults. Putting these salads into smaller containers, and removing from the cooler as they are needed, ensures that it stays cold and delicious for everyone.
Everyone loves desserts, and men especially love fluffy sweets to end a meal. These “mousse” desserts can be as simple as a box of instant pudding mixed with a container of thawed whipped topping, scooped into containers and chilled an hour or so before the picnic. A perennial favorite is a can of crushed pineapple, a box of pistachio instant pudding, a container of whipped topping, and then possibly some miniature marshmallows. Want something pink? How about strawberry creme mousse? A pint of frozen strawberries (thawed) mixed with a container of strawberry creme instant pudding (yes, they really have it, but it isn’t very “strawberry-ish”) or vanilla pudding, and a container of thawed whipped topping and you’ll have an easy and delicious strawberry mousse. Adding 2-3 sliced or diced bananas turns it into strawberry-banana mousse, and with that, what could be more natural than throwing in crushed or whole vanilla wafers? These desserts are easy enough that if you bring along a bowl to mix it in, a large spoon for stirring…you can actually stop at the store and buy the items, mixing them right at the picnic table! (You will have to wait for the whipped topping to thaw, about 30 minutes on an average summer day.) Don’t forget a lid to cover the bowl, protecting it from dust and insects.
Other desserts can be as simple as chilled fruit, cut into bite sized pieces, or as complicated as any dessert you’d serve at home. You can get inventive too–things such as crumbled or cubed crazy cake (recipe here) mixed with chocolate or vanilla mousse can be stunning picnic desserts. Jello cake, a favorite in the 1980s, is a perfect summertime dessert with its jewel-like streaks of color and cool flavors. In a covered 9×13″ pan, riding in the cooler, it’s also a good traveler. How about a traditional trifle? It’s dramatic enough to serve guests at home, but when it is placed on a picnic table, it still can gather everyone around. These are simple–it’s just layers of lightly sweetened fruit, cubed vanilla cake (try this cake), vanilla pudding, and whipped cream placed in a glass bowl to show off the stunning layers. (You can also use a traditional footed glass trifle dish.) Once again, this needs to be kept ice cold until serving, so nestle the bowl in ice, and make sure the top is securely covered.
It’s becoming more obvious that when we’re holding the reins to a tight budget, the best way to stick to it and have quality food…is to do it ourselves. Besides, what better way to become the best cook you can possibly be than by practicing the art?
EVERYONE loves a good cook!