To Celebrate Black Life and Leisure, a Picnic in Central Park

It’s early afternoon on a warm Saturday in June, and Sheep Meadow in Manhattan’s Central Park is awash with people relaxing on blankets and lawn chairs, laughing and chatting as they sunbathe or catch up over snacks. “I honestly had forgotten how busy it can get in the park,” says Amber Mayfield, 29 — the founder of the New York event agency To Be Hosted, and of While Entertaining, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the talents of Black foodies — as she surveys the scene, to which she will soon add.

Under the branches of a large tree near the western edge of the park, Mayfield has set up for a potluck-style picnic in honor of Juneteenth. On the guest list are her fiancé, Jordan Hewett, who is a high school math teacher, and various friends and food professionals. On a low-slung wooden table Mayfield brought along, she’s laid out the cookbooks “Watermelon and Red Birds” (2022) by Nicole A. Taylor and Bryant Terry’s “Black Food” (2021), from which she took inspiration for the event. These sit alongside a pitcher of homemade strawberry soda and a yellow peony- and bearded iris-studded centerpiece by Emily Scott of the Harlem-based Floriconvento Flowers. When it came to the food, Mayfield gave her guests a directive: to bring something that represented freedom, tradition or family to them.

In the end, the spread reflected a wide array of tastes and cultures, and the attendees mixed and matched, passing serving platters among themselves. The chef Leigh-Ann Martin brought a callaloo quiche with a jar of roasted Scotch bonnet aioli, a sauce reminiscent of a ghost and scorpion pepper sauce commonly served in Trinidad and Tobago, where she grew up, and the chef and cooking instructor Sicily Sierra Johnson made pickled vegetable and pastrami sandwiches that made her think of the generations of women in her family who created the best dishes using only what they had around them. “It’s a small and simple way that I can honor what’s behind me and what’s in front of me,” she said. The model Fatou Thiam brought fataya, or Senegalese fish hand pies, that she’d made with her mother the day before. She explained that they were similar to Jamaican beef patties, or pastelitos. “Patties, hand pies — these pastries connect all of us,” she said.

Indeed, sharing or listening to the back stories of and reasons behind bringing each dish, which the guests did while sitting on pillows sans shoes, was an important part of the gathering, one that added to the already intimate atmosphere. Tiffany-Anne Parkes, a Jamaican American pastry chef and the founder of the virtual bakeshop Pienanny, who for dessert had prepared a plantain cremeux with Biscoff and Jamaican coffee crust — a play on banana pudding — said, “Plantain allows us to play across the diaspora, and it’s a connecting piece.” Then, to the diners’ delight, she produced a piping bag of homemade chocolate sauce and added the words “BLACK LEISURE” across the top of the pudding in all caps. “Play, choices and leisure are essential to Black freedom,” she said.

As the afternoon continued, the park pulsed with other groups coming and going and swirling around the picnic, but never breaking the bubble of closeness that held Mayfield and her guests. “I feel like we’ve created this little oasis,” said Mayfield, smiling as she looked around the table. In a way, she does this sort of thing all the time. She started her business, which has worked with such clients as Netflix and Equinox, in the hopes of creating memorable dinner parties highlighting the work of Black creatives, and While Entertaining is an extension of that philosophy that provides a platform for chefs to share the ways in which they’ve fostered or experienced warmth and hospitality in their own lives: In its pages, she runs both recipes and personal essays. Still, she felt that the picnic, which she planned for neither of her business ventures but rather to unwind and spend time with friends, was something extra special. “We’re always moving and hustling,” Mayfield said. “To be able to sit and chill feels like pressing a reset button.” It was also an ideal way to honor a day that is a reminder of Black culture and resilience. Here, Mayfield shares her tips for throwing a meaningful picnic of your own.

Set an Intention

Mayfield’s request that guests bring dishes honoring Juneteenth added depth to the gathering. “It was really beautiful to see the way everybody interpreted that assignment,” she says. It also facilitated conversation, even among those who didn’t already know each other.

Fill In the Gaps

Mayfield asked guests to R.S.V.P. with the dishes they planned to bring so that she could get a sense of the menu (she also wasn’t afraid to offer feedback about what would or wouldn’t work when served more or less at room temperature) and what was unaccounted for. Given what she gleaned, and keeping in mind the temperature and the season, she brought a leafy salad, fresh fruit, poundcake skewers and homemade strawberry soda, which she portioned into individual swing-top glass bottles with striped straws.

Pay Attention to the Details

Even small touches can make a big difference, says Mayfield. The books also encouraged discussion, while the pillows invited guests to take off their shoes and get comfortable. Mayfield also used little flourishes to pull the table design together. “I love the green-and-white striped napkins,” she says. “You can do things very simply and then just have two pops of color and it all feels more extravagant.”

Think Beyond the Blanket

Why not add some “razzle-dazzle?” says Mayfield, who recommends outlining your entertaining space with area rugs and floor pillows. This will make the gathering more luxurious (and comfortable) than just a single-layer picnic blanket would. The idea is to “make it feel like it’s not your regular Saturday,” she says. Guests will “remember it more and be more present, too.”

Tap Into Nostalgia

The picnic took on a fun vibe when, after eating, guests played with oversize playing cards and wooden dominoes, which Mayfield knew would remind people of the cookouts they’d attended as children. She also wanted to pass those traditions on to the young people in attendance (Johnson brought her daughters, Marlee and Madison). “They’re part of how we unwind and just relax alongside the music and food,” she says. “It just felt like something that had to be there.”

Music Should Add, Not Overpower

Playing in the background thanks to a Bluetooth speaker placed underneath the table were theme-appropriate songs like Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” “I like to find a place that’s in the center of the action to put the music, but not in a way that keeps people from talking to each other,” Mayfield says. “You can turn it up a little, and because it’s under the table, it doesn’t feel like it’s in your space. It’s more like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m softly hearing “Lovely Day.”’” You can listen to Mayfield’s full playlist here.