By Keir Graff
If you’re like me, the last meal you ate outside was a hamburger. Seated on a wall, the carry-out bag ripped open to accommodate the spill of fries, red dots of ketchup slowly gluing bag to cement. The Coke cup anchoring the whole raft against a steady, chill spring wind. In five or ten minutes you snarfed the lot down, balled and deposited the trash, and were on your way to the next engagement. Hardly a picnic.
Picnics are a dying art. Like drive-in movies, the other American summer pastime, we lament them but don’t do them. Convenience is all, and each generation loses a portion of the genes or training that allowed our elders the patience necessary to organize an outing. I’ve seen snapshots of a picnic my young parents had, in the sixties: in the woods, perched on a boulder, a group of clean-shaven, short-sheared Youth Fellowship types clowning around, looks of delight unmistakable. They had guitars and wine, for crying out loud.
Picnics, when mentioned, seem to bring a distant gleam to the eye, and a faint, noncommittal, “That’d be fun.” Perhaps it’s visions of Victorian garden parties, replete with games, semi-formal wear and intricately executed dainties on silver trays that scares people off. Could it be that, in spite of popular metaphor, a picnic is no picnic?
Eating outdoors, though, doesn’t have to take on Prudhommean proportions. And it can be more than mere convenience. And with Memorial Day coming up, you ought to think about it.
Normally, my wife and I are the types to overdo it a bit—ask any one of our friends. If we can’t make it all from scratch, why bother? But, we’ve realized, we do less, less often because of the involvement in getting these things off the ground. So with that in mind, we decided to poorly plan our picnic, to do nothing in advance, to see what pleasure could still be derived from a meal eaten outdoors. A note: I define “picnic” here as a cold meal eaten outdoors. If a grill is involved, it’s BBQ (barbecue to some), and a different matter entirely. Also, picnics are generally but not necessarily eaten away from one’s own yard, while BBQs are generally but not necessarily the reverse.
On a cold but sunny spring day, I drag myself away from the Sunday NBA playoffs triple-header, and my wife and I begin assembling our picnic. Into a backpack goes a blanket, carrots, olives and a Thermos of limeade. And a Frisbee. That’s all we’ve got on hand, so we walk to the grocery and acquire an apple, a jar of pickles and two small tubs of strawberry parfait Jell-O. Across the parking lot, at KFC, we get a box of chicken and a small cole slaw.
Overladen now, we catch a bus to the lake and stroll up the shoreline, looking for a spot. Here the wind is steady, and our plastic shopping bags parachute in the breeze and tug us back. We’re raggedy; if it weren’t for brand-name footwear, a kindly soul might offer us spare change. We spread the blanket out in the lee of a hillock, disperse the food and begin eating. We’re famished, so there’s no sighing, stretching and “oh-the-lovely-beach”-ing. No, we just start in, rending the Colonel’s with our teeth and sucking down limeade.
But something happens. Slowly we grow warmer and kick off our shoes. The sunshine loosens our joints and we recline. We slow our ravenous chomping and start talking. We look around. We commune with the various dogs that come to visit. We keep eating, but of all things… we’re relaxing.
Our butts and elbows get damp through the blanket, but it’s all right, certainly preferable to the hardwood floor of our apartment. We polish off chicken, slaw, olives, a carrot and the Jell-O at a leisurely pace, the kind of slow eating that allows you to really overdo it. The lake—which we don’t get to often enough, in spite of living only a mile away—rolls gently in, its hugeness providing a tranquillity absent on Clark Street.
When we’re done, we don’t linger too long, as the wind is starting to chill our ears again. We clean up, pack, toss the Frisbee a few times, and head home. If the weather were nicer we’d linger, but we don’t have to; like most modern pleasures, even a picnic can be completed in ninety minutes.