The fine art of picnicking

It's June -- summer and picnic time. It's the time when everyone has the urge to get away -- get outdoors and somehow still avoid using up that expensive tank of gasoline.

Eating out is America's No. 1 hobby, but in June it switches from eating in a restaurant to dinint out of doors. Busy people respond to the outdoor life for eating because it saves time and also avoids the chopping and peeling of cooking and the cleanup of meals at home.

But there's more to eating out than just saving labor. There's something special about eating in the fresh air that seems to make the food taste better. Whether it's cooking the food outdoors or just eating it outside, it has an added dimension.

Some of the most appetizing food in the world is cooked outdoors. The Greeks , Romans, Russians, and British are a few of the people who have traditions of outdoor dining, ranging from formal dinners on a boat on the Thames and hunting parties in the Russian woodlands to simple Italian picnics under the willows and French bread-and-cheese lunches in the fields of the normancy countryside.

Food does taste different. Often, exactly the same thing takes on a new look when hunger is whetted by the fresh air. A hot dog can take on the appeal of a great steak. A well-seasoned stuffed egg can have almost as much attraction as an elegant pate.

But picnics are a whole new ball game as far as locale is concerned. Today there's no need to drive miles to the country to find a peaceful grove or the grassy slope of a rippling brook. Mossy banks are fine, if available, but everything from peanut butter sandwiches to elegant dinners are being served in backyards, beaches and ballparks, in public picnic areas, camping grounds, and between the acts of Shakespearean plays at summer theaters.

Not all picnickers leave leftovers for the swans and squirrels to nibble on in city parks. Some prefer bicycling to view the countryside as they leave the city, combining home-cooked foods carried in bike baskets and duffel bags with a moveable view and lots of pleasant breezes.

Research does not tell who first had the idea of eating outside even though there was a perfectly good dining room available, but the person deserves credit for recognizing that nature can do something extra to often ordinary fare.

Webster's definition calls a picnic a pleasure outing at which a meal is eaten outdoors, and most people agree that it is more than a meal outdoors -- it is a festive occasion, a break in the ordinary routine, free of many of the ordinary cares and perhaps something of a luxury.

On the other hand there are those picnics that are not always perfectly comfortable. Climate can change a sunny day to either scorching or chilly. And how to keep the bugs out of the picnic is always a problem -- if not in actuality, then in remembering to bring all the right things to the picnic grounds.

Picnic fare is carted and carried to the site in a wide assortment of boxes, baskets, and insulated carriers these days, along with the handsome hampers that come equipped with plates and cutlery neatly snapped in place.

Some people like big square baskets with open tops. They're helpful for bulky items like long loaves of bread, and they're easy to carry. Canvas sailing bags and tote bags are handy, too, and others are sold on backpacks. Whatever the choice, small bags or baskets are best if you want children to help with the carrying.

Inside the basket you'll want your own favorite kind of sandwich boxes or plastic containers for fruits, raw vegetables, salt and pepper, and other condiments. A lightweight cutting board that doubles as a serving platter is good for many things. A Swiss army knife or something equally handy is a good basic piece of picnic equipment and a thermos bottle and napkins are other permanent things picnicgoers should keep in their basket.

As for what goes inside the picnic baskets, hampers, or whatever, people often wonder if the food should be any different from food served inside. The answer is -- it depends. There is nothing whatever to stop people from eating salad and meatballs in a pocket of pita bread in the dining room, but somehow it seems more appropriate outdoors.

And you can carefully transport elegant mousse or molded salad to the country if you want to take the trouble, but this goes against the grain for many people. Some think picnic food should be simple food, simply prepared, and that it's an opportunity to take advantage of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Picnic food should be easy to eat even if you're perched on a hillside or spread out on the beach. The best outdoor food for some people needs not last-minute cooking, although cooking outdoors, whether it's an open fire or a barbecue, is some people's idea of perfect dining.

Most Americans rely heavily on their refrigerator for storing food made ahead of time. But perfectionist say that same-day cooking gives many advantages. Refrigeration dries out meats and can kill the delicate flavors of salads and vegetables. Many dishes are better if they are put in a cool place where the flavors will meld or mellow for a few hours. Many foods require constant refrigeration, however, and some foods are at their best icy cold.

Fruit salads stay crisper and fresher if they are kept cold. Cold soups seem to taste much better if they are very cold. However, if you are making soups with a chicken or fish base, remember that homemade soups often have lots of natural gelatin and should be diluted enough with water or other liquid so that they don't get firmly gelled when cold.

We can learn a lot about picnic foods from the foods of other countries. British cold meat-pies, Cornies pasties, and other pastries stuffed with assorted fillings are delectable eat-out-of-hand fare.

Elegant picnickers stop at almost nothing wrapped in crusts. They often carry along pates and meat terrines, meat and fish loaves, cooked in brioche dough or puff pastry. Ordinary favorites such as chili, spaghetti dishes, and all kinds of soups and stews are familiar to those who want to cook at the picnic spot or camping site.

Desserts can be fancy, but fresh fruit is really the best all-round dessert, along with brownies, cakes, or cookies, which can be eaten neatly while taking a walk through the woods or along the shore.

Not all picnics need to have fancy, expensive food. Remember that there is nothing wrong with a hard-boiled egg, but it's not the only kind that belongs at an outdoor meal. The can be stuffed or coated with green mayonnaise or they can come to the party in a French quiche or a Chinese egg roll.

At its best the outdoor meal should be an occasion. It deserves food that has been carefully prepared to make it really special.

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