OF the countless meals we experience in the course of a lifetime, memories of summer picnics are among those that linger longest. Who cares about ants, occasional damp days, warm and flat ginger ale, and sandwiches dropped in the sand? It's the sun-warmed rocks or cool moss or walks in the woods that stick.
Picnics are the height of informal entertaining no matter what you serve, or how elegantly they are served. It just isn't possible to be formal sitting on a rock, a log, or sprawled across a blanket. Picnics are for relaxing. Food preparation, it is hoped, has been taken care of earlier.
It's a holiday for children, too. Parents don't mind where the watermelon seeds fly, or how, or who propels the slippery black projectiles. Finger licking, if not encouraged, is at least tolerated for the day.
Although artists and poets portray picnics in the most bucolic of settings, not all picnics need be crowned by a ring of wild daisies. Some memorable ones can take place in the very heart of a busy city, above the noisy traffic on top of a high-rise apartment, under the stars as well as the sun.
Fried chicken, lemonade, brownies, potato salad, and the like have become all too ordinary picnic fare in the United States. As good as they are, you're not breaking any law by not including any one of them.
Picnic food does not have to be traditional, expected, ordinary, or dull. A spread on a blanket should be no more limiting than one served at a dining-room table.
It was the British who raised the picnic to an event of glorious abundance during the Victorian era. It's obvious from her ``Book of Household Management'' of the period that Mrs. Isabella Beeton really knew how to fill a picnic hamper. Her picnic menu for 40 included: ``A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal and ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium lobsters, 1 piece of collard calveshead, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers.'' Of course, she had to save room for dessert!
The point here -- something that the British have known for quite a while -- is that most any cooked meat, fish, or vegetable is just as delicious served cold. A good Dijon mustard or mayonnaise whipped up with an appropriate herb of your choice makes an added ``frosting.'
You may want to give your picnic a theme. Perhaps an ethnic picnic based on your own family roots. Or you might find out what those strange-looking exotic fruits you've seen at the supermarket are and bring some along.
Artichokes, cooked earlier in the day and served cold at a picnic with an herb mayonnaise, add a touch of elegance to a picnic. Other possibilities might be a cold fruit dessert soup, a new kind of bread, and an interesting salad.
If it's a picnic for adults who may appreciate a little unexpected elegance, bring along some good china, silverware, and linen napkins. A fine damask tablecloth instead of a blanket, or even an old worn Oriental rug, topped off with a glittering silver candelabrum? If you're serving cold bottled drinks, polish the old family ice bucket as well. Why not?
If it's a paper-plate affair, try to find some of those wicker holders that prevent the plates from folding in half and emptying their contents on the nearest guest. For kids, take plastic forks -- the sturdy kind, not those cheap ones -- paper cups, and simple, manageable food. And a picnic is no place to ruin Johnny's day by making him finish a tongue and horseradish sandwich. He can clean up his plate at home.
Remember Mrs. Beeton, and don't skimp. Be sure to bring plenty of food and drink. And running out of ice is a minor disaster.
Here are a few ideas for some interesting and rather simple palate pleasers. If kids have trouble with the Roquefort Mousse, give in and take along a bowl of the family's favorite potato salad.
The following recipe travels well if kept cool and molded. Roquefort Mousse 5 ounces imported Roquefort or Gorgon- zola cheese, softened 4 ounces cream cheese, softened 1 1/2 cups sour cream 1 1/2 cups small-curd creamed cottage cheese 1 cup light cream 1/4 cup minced chives or scallion tops 1/2 cup watercress leaves 2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped cucumber 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin 1/2 cup cold water Cream Roquefort with cream cheese until smooth. Beat in all remaining ingredients except gelatin and water. Combine thoroughly.
Soften gelatin in cold water, then heat slowly, stirring until dissolved. Allow to cool slightly before adding to cheese mixture.
Oil a 6-cup ring mold and spoon in mousse. Chill until set.
Keep chilled until you unmold mousse at picnic site. Serve on lettuce leaves with cherry tomatoes if you like, or simply spread on bland crackers. Pasta Salad Tonnato 4 ounces small ruffle-edged noodles Olive oil 2 7-ounce cans white tuna in oil, drained and flaked 1 large sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into slivers 1/4 cup capers 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley Salt and freshly ground pepper
Cook noodles according to package directions. Be careful not to overcook. Rinse in cold water, drain thoroughly, and toss with small amount of oil.
Add all remaining ingredients. Season with salt and pepper and toss. Add dressing (below) and toss thoroughly. Dressing 1 large clove garlic, crushed 3/4 cup olive oil 3 tablespoons lemon juice
Whisk ingredients together and add to pasta salad just before serving. Toss thoroughly. Serves 4 to 6. Tomato-Orange Starter 1 quart tomato juice 1 quart orange juice 1/2 lemon thinly sliced Dash of bitters (optional)
The liquid ingredients may be blended together and topped with slices of lemon. If you are serving this drink in clear glasses, the orange juice may be carefully poured to float over the tomato juice, topped with a dash of bitters, and served with a slice of lemon.
For children, a mix of cranberry and orange juices is a treat-especially when a bunch of grapes is in the bottom of the glass. Serve with peanut butter and banana slices. Cut the banana lengthwise, spread with peanut butter, and slice.