It's a tradition hundreds of years old, a rite of summer, when people feel compelled to head outdoors to eat. Just say the word "picnic," and most folks will reminisce about the memorable food they recall - maybe it was Grandmother's always-tender fried chicken, tangy lemonade accented by fresh mint leaves, pink cole slaw made from purple cabbage, or chewy brownies that had you coming back for seconds and thirds.
Picnics aren't just fond memories, though. Even in a rush-rush society, they remain a popular way to get together with family and friends, or an excuse to head into the "great outdoors" (even if it's the local park), where food always seems to taste so much better than anywhere else.
In Virginia, where I grew up, picnics were almost an art form. My family filled a wooden basket practically every weekend and headed off to some special spot my mother knew about - from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Peaks of Otter to public parks with streamside tables and grills.
Yet when I recall hundreds of family picnics during my childhood, what comes to mind instantly isn't the food. Instead, it's what I have come to think of as the bottomless picnic basket.
From the outside the wooden basket looked rather ordinary, but once the lid was opened, it always seemed as though anything that might be needed at a picnic could be found in its depths: a paring knife for slicing ripe tomatoes picked up at a roadside stand on the way to the picnic spot. A larger, stronger carving knife for cutting open a juicy watermelon. A pickle fork for spearing olives or pickles in a tall jar. Separate openers for cans, jars, and bottles.
As I've since realized, there's an art to packing a picnic basket. How did all that stuff fit in there? I don't know, but it did - in my memories anyway.
As I grew up, I learned there were many kinds of informal outdoor meals that are really picnics even if they aren't called that.
Rural churches in the South often have summer homecomings with "dinner on the grounds." A favorite feature of family reunions is tables laden with so much food it doesn't seem possible to eat it all in one afternoon. There are barbecues by the lake, clambakes by the seashore, tailgating at fall football games, and backpacking a substantial meal into the upcountry.
Every July 4th, my family headed for the mountaintop home of church friends, where dozens of people brought an array of food to contribute, and - in between return trips for more macaroni salad and coconut cake - played hotly contested games of badminton and horseshoes.
Although outdoor eating is as old as humanity, the communal outdoor meal where everyone contributes a dish harks back to the 1600s, when lavish outdoor feasts were first called pique-nique in French, according to Russell Cronkhite, writing in "A Return to Family Picnics" (Multnomah Gifts, $32). Pique means to pick, and referred to eating food with the fingers, he says.
Over the next several hundred years, picnics grew in popularity, mostly among the upper classes. London had a Picnic Society. Americans, always more egalitarian, tended to see picnics as inexpensive opportunities to socialize and celebrate.
They certainly were in my family. I quickly learned that in order to take advantage of the perfect picnic day - blue skies, mild temperatures, light breeze - it helped to be ready.
Rule No. 1 was to keep a basket filled with the necessities - plastic plates, cups, bowls, silverware, serving spoons, a couple of tablecloths, napkins, different sizes of lidded Tupperware containers, paper towels, washcloth, dish towels, matches, salt and pepper shakers, platter, cutting board, thermos, and plastic garbage bags for cleaning up after the food has disappeared.
Mr. Cronkhite, who spent 12 years as executive chef of Blair House, guest house of the US president, is certainly a fan of picnic baskets - and picnics in general. His new book is one of several that explore the best foods to serve, whether you want classic cuisine or to break out of the traditional mold.
Many of his recipes feature an unexpected touch - pineapple juice added to fresh limeade; corn on the cob cooked in milk, butter, and water; potato salad made with sweet potatoes instead of the usual white or red ones. They provide a way to produce picnic fare that's familiar yet a bit unusual.
In contrast, the recipes in "Picnics" by Robin Vitetta-Miller (Clarkson Potter, $14.95), are simple and speedy but also gourmet: vegetarian pita pockets with hummus, marinated eggplant, and baby greens, for instance, or soft-shell crab sandwiches with almond mayonnaise.
"Potato Salad," by Barbara Lauterbach (Chronicle Books, $18.95), treads a middle ground for those who don't already have a favorite potato salad recipe, or who are searching for some variations. Imagine a picnic table with smoked oyster potato salad sitting beside mashed potato salad - something for every age and taste.
After all, a picnic is a time that adults don't worry about acting a bit childlike - letting watermelon juice roll down the chin without wiping it off - and children can observe the grown-up world and begin to take their place in it. It's a time of reveling in "the simple pleasures," as Cronkhite calls them.
But that's not all. "What makes a picnic special," he declares, "is the love that goes into preparing and sharing it."
12 limes, at room temperature
3 cups pineapple juice
About 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
32 ounces sparkling water
Fresh mint springs, for garnish
Crushed ice, if desired
Halve and juice the limes (you should end up with about 1-1/2 cups of juice); reserve the squeezed lime halves. In a pitcher, combine the lime juice with the pineapple juice; add sugar until it's sweetened to your taste. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, and then add the sparkling water.
Place a squeezed lime half in the bottom of each glass, along with a sprig of mint, if desired. Add ice and pour the limeade over. Makes about 2 quarts.
Adapted from 'A Return to Family Picnics'
12 ears sweet corn
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
Shuck the corn, trim the ends, and then rinse off all of the stringy silk. Combine the water, milk, and butter in a large pot; season with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Drop the corn into the pot, cover, and cook until tender, 5 to 6 minutes. If desired, melt additional butter over the ears and sprinkle with salt. Makes 12 servings.
Adapted from 'A Return to Family Picnics'
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup fresh raspberries
2 scallions (green and white parts), chopped
1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the chicken in a medium saucepan with water to cover. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Drain. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut it into 1-inch chunks.
Meanwhile, place the walnuts in a small dry skillet and set over medium-high heat. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the nuts are golden brown, shaking the pan frequently. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the chicken cubes, raspberries, and scallions. Toss gently to combine.
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, and mustard. Pour over the chicken mixture and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Refrigerate in a plastic container with sealable lid until you're ready to pack it into a cold cooler. Top with the walnuts just before serving. Makes 4 servings.
Adapted from 'Picnics'