NEW YORK (CIRCA) — Every year in New York City, there seems to be this expectation that, as the calendar changes over from February to March, a switch will be flipped to change the weather from cold and drab to springlike and promising.
However, with the first day of spring falling closer toward the end of March than to its beginning, those hopes and dreams are relentlessly crushed year after year with temperatures below freezing and threats of snowfall. And with every check of your weather app, you remember that, oh, right, March is still winter, at least until next February, when you once again start to believe that the month ahead will bring light cardigans and picnics in the park.
But on March 2, those both tough enough and crazy enough to brave the winter weather gathered in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for the most unconventional of winter sports: competitive winter picnicking. And as children sled down the park’s hills on freshly fallen snow from the night before, costumed teams began to roll out their picnic blankets and fire up their grills to compete for cash prizes in a variety of different categories.
The cold-weather competition got its start in 2014. Mark Krawczuk, a local artist, decided it would be fun to gather his friends outside during one of the toughest times of the year to create thematic picnics that he could then judge. Though Krawczuk has since moved to San Francisco, a collective called Shadow Traffic has committed to keeping the tradition alive.
“We’re all artists,” explained Shadow Traffic co-founder Jonah Levy, “and everybody needs some sort of creative outlet.”
Shadow Traffic aims to eliminate the hard line that’s often drawn between artist and audience by encouraging participatory, creativity-based events like competitive winter picnicking. It’s a theater production without the stage and without spectators.
The dedication of competitors to their themes was certainly impressive.
A team of four dressed to perfection as elderly women, called the Fantasy Grandmas, remained so true to their characters that other attendees were willing to believe they were actually grandmothers who just so happened to stumble across the picnic.
At the Paternal Picnic, team members dressed up as fathers and spent the entire picnic grilling, embarrassing the judges as their “children” and cracking dad jokes. The “dads” wore mustaches, sandals with socks and, in one case, a literal beer belly.
“This woman had a pouch under her sweater, and it was filled with beer. And when she came in for a hug, beer would spray into your mouth,” said Levy.
“The Cthululemon did a really great job of mashing up the athletic sportswear brand with demonic ritual sacrifice,” Levy said of another one of his favorites. The team name was a combination of the monster Cthulhu and the brand Lululemon, and their costumes of chains, tentacles and leggings reflected that well.
Over at the Church of Plaiderday Saints, everything was plaid. They wore plaid layered over plaid layered over plaid, all of their food was somewhat plaid, and they played plaid-minton with a plaid fabric net.
Each team was encouraged to design a game to join picnic guests together, and the games also proved an effective way of quickly passing the six hours spent outside in the bitter cold. The grannies led a rousing round of bingo, with peas and carrots as the card markers and medication as the grand prize. And a dad joke competition brought an equal amount of laughs and groans.
With so many innovative themes, the judges certainly don’t have the easiest of the jobs, though they do get to spend the majority of the event enjoying food, drinks, and bribes from the different picnics, so no need to feel too bad for them. Their decision-making process is made easier by the sheer amount of certificates available, as every picnic is able to walk away with some form of bragging rights.
“One way we decide is simply that we just give away a ton of awards. We literally have about 30 certificates for everything from Ugliest Salad to Vegan-est Food,” said Levy.
“We also have awards for Best in Show, First Place and Winner,” he continued.
Given the multitude of categories, there’s certainly an overall feeling present that everyone’s a winner. But for the four cash prizes? The competition is fierce. “There are people who come back really gunning for Best Drink,” Levy said.
In addition to Bestest Picnic Drink, the other three categories with monetary awards are Mostest Thematic Team, Funnest Picnic Game, and Richest Picnic Meal. All four awards also came with a one-of-a-kind, glitter-coated trophy.
Though each team made a solid effort with their meals, it was hard to imagine any team but Cthululemon taking the top prize in that category, and the judges agreed. As the team accepted the trophy, it posed holding up its meal’s main masterpiece, a truly stomach-churning Cthulhu-esque creation made up of at least three different animal parts.
And even after receiving the award for the Mostest Thematic Team, the Fantasy Grandmas continued to insist that they really were just a few old women in their 80s.
If you’re considering entering the field of competitive winter picnicking yourself, you’ll have to wait until next year, but that does give you plenty of time to perfect your theme. In the meantime, you might find yourself attending one of Shadow Traffic’s other immersive events, like the Lost Horizon Night Market, a pop-up art bazaar held in box trucks.
All of Shadow Traffic’s events are free to encourage accessibility across all budgets. And like many organizations aiming to keep the DIY community alive and well, Shadow Traffic uses the Withfriends platform to raise funds. Several tiers of monthly memberships, ranging from $3 to $30 per month, offer perks to supporters; modest discounts are available for those ready to go all in on an annual membership.
“We’re fundraising right now to get our 501(c)(3) status to become a nonprofit, so we can enter the grant cycle and rely less on our community,” said Levy.