Feast for the Fourth

A PICNIC needs a view. A picnic begins in the imagination, when some setting begins to beckon. It may be a darkening, shady glen if the weather has been hot and glaring. Or a long, sloping lawn leading to a rose hedge, with a lake beyond -- space for toddlers to amble and kids to play catch with Frisbees or whatever is at hand. At times one wants to be immersed in a crowd -- and the crowd itself becomes the view: diverse, animated, colorful, changing. Sometimes a monument punctuates the setting -- a bell tower on a college campus, a commanding tree in a city park, a boulder in the desert, a lighthouse by the ocean.

For the Fourth of July, a site closer at hand is in order. That is especially true of this Fourth, when many Americans will want to get home early to watch some of the national festivities on television. The Fourth traditionally is a community celebration, anyway -- and so a local arboretum, the town lake, or a municipal garden could provide the proper picnic focus.

In any event, the appetite for sight is every bit as assertive and distinctive as the appetite for food.

A picnic also needs portability.

A picnic is not a patio affair. No sink nearby. One cannot count on a park table being free. Or a fireplace. A station wagon tailgate is fine, but a recreational vehicle with refrigeration and a built-in cooktop is not really playing the game. In our childhood bike-hikes, the limitations were pretty severe -- hence we managed with sandwiches, soft drinks, and fruit. With drivers' licenses and dates came ice chests and charcoal grills. Family and company picnics were on an entirely other scale: trunksful of baskets, boxes, galvanized iron tubs, blocks of ice, sheetcakes, gallon-sized mixing bowls of potato salad and egg salad and tossed salad, and plastic containers of crudit'es, which never really staved off that passionate hunger that overtakes one on a glorious day outdoors.

Today there is more art to picnic portability. Technology has replaced the old ceramic picnic jugs and their metal tops with insulated plastic flasks. Packing ice cream in dry ice has been made unneccessary by small ice-cream makers that can keep their contents firm for several hours. There are light, unbreakable thermoses made of stainless steel, and many kinds of containers with freezable lids that can keep contents cool. The new whipped cream dispensers with nitrogen cartridges are ideal for picnicking (keep them in the cooler). Picnic displays have moved from the hardware store to gift shops and high-tech boutiques.

And picnics need a party.

A picnic for one? It sounds a little sad. Has our society's going it alone really come to this?

At least a party of two, then. We remember an intimate picnic for two on a most crowded beach on Michigan's Saginaw Bay. And a sporty motorcycle outing to Cape Cod's Truro dunes.

A picnic is social.

It is a destination reached together.

A piece of outdoor theater, with a definite imprint of setting, occasion, and season.

And of course, a picnic needs food.

The food should not require so great a production that it detracts from the companionship and the view. It is no longer fashionable on outings for the women to play galley slave while the men play ball, or, in the later version, for the men to man the barbecue pit while the women massage the salad.

Neither should it be entirely a take-out affair. Skipping the hamburger chains, it is easy today to buy 30 varieties of salad, roasted meats, cheeses, and pastries -- to suit everyone's tastes, from organic people to plain folk to yuppies -- all set to go from delicatessens, department-store pantry shops, and shopping-mall lobbies.

But food for a picnic requires at least a minimum of actual doing. Otherwise it might appear as much of a friendly gesture as hiring someone else to take out your date.

And, like all intelligent dining, picnic food should observe the principle of economy. For more than two persons, the bill for buying out runs up too fast.

For this Fourth of July, we would propose a modest picnic menu -- a chilled dill-cucumber soup, ``city chicken,'' sliced tomatoes with basil, new bliss potato salad with mustard, and a fresh plum pie with whipped cream. It is very portable when taking advantage of the new technology, and for us it bears happy associations from picnics past that can only enhance a picnic present.

If the day -- and view -- is capped with fireworks, so much the better.

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