This is the American picnic "dream": It is a warm, yet not too warm, summer day. Beneath the sheltering limbs of an old oak tree, a gentle breeze cools a happy family of four. Dad and the kids – one boy, one girl, both gifted – spread a red-and-white-checked cloth on the greenest of green grass. Mom opens a wooden hamper to reveal a feast of crisply fried (not by the Colonel) chicken, a Yukon Gold potato salad alive with bites of crunchy yellow pepper, crisp bacon, and sweet red onion, plus a creamy coleslaw with two – make it three – kinds of cabbage. And, finally, gooey, but never messy, brownies for dessert.
That's the fantasy for some people. For others, the picnic dream is more of a nightmare; slightly less sweet and definitely less crunchy: The chicken is soggy, the potato salad was made days ago by a deli worker who overcooked the potatoes, and the coleslaw was forgotten and is still at home. No matter what the dessert, it will leave stains on your shirt. The setting, a sun-baked park, is filled with the cacophony of imploring mothers and ignoring children. Divebombing flies compete for every bit of your food; all of which, even though you're not at the beach, is somehow filled with sand.
There doesn't seem to be a middle lawn when it comes to what picnicking represents to people.
When I asked my food-obsessed friends to take a position for or against dining alfresco sans table, there were an almost equal number of lovers and loathers.
What was consistent, however, was how many of the responses were based on memories – either cherished or shudder-inducing – of childhood picnics. One old friend, for instance, still remembers those "magical weenie roasts" in a forest preserve when her mother would pack a thermos of chilled potato soup kept cool and undiluted by the addition of frozen cubes of the same soup.
Today, the same friend describes herself as the Picnic Queen whose idea of a great food experience is not a four-star restaurant but "to shop for a picnic in the old section of Vence, a town northwest of Nice."
I, on the other hand, who picnicked in the very same forest preserve, recall that my weenies were usually charred on the outside and cold inside. Thus my ideal meal is also in a French town such as Vence, but sitting indoors at a table.
My friend Raquel in New York represents both extremes of memory. As a child, she and the family ice chest were forced to share the back seat of the car on the way to a park. "It would always leak the most awful smells," she recalls. "Overripe bananas, deteriorating milk, too-hot oranges, salami, and this weird cheese my father loved."
Beach picnics, on the other hand, brought forth an entirely different – and much happier – memory for her. One filled with "the world's best potato salad" and "homemade cookie-crust apple pie." As she says, "I have enjoyed great meals all over the world, but I never had a meal better than those beach picnics."
Someone who has no ambivalence about picnics is a friend in Santa Monica, Calif., who writes horror novels and shudders at the thought of eating outdoors. Youthful family excursions invaded by swarms of wasps and wayward Frisbees explain why his idea of a perfect picnic is "a visit to the Musée d'Orsay to see Manet's 'Luncheon On the Grass.' "
But for every picnic-loather there's an adorer like Jody, a market researcher from New Jersey who picnics 12 months a year. "I love picnics!" she says. "One of my favorite memories of my daddy is having a picnic in the middle of winter and him setting up the badminton net in the middle of the snow. I remember having great fun until we lost the badminton birdie in all the snow, but the hamburgers were delish."
All these opposing feelings about picnics make it apparent (to me, anyway) that we tend to judge the concept of picnics the same way we judge so many foods – burned hot dogs, pitchers of Kool-Aid, processed cheese spread, Twinkies – by our memories more than our taste buds.
When I asked my British wife about picnics, her face lighted up, and she spoke lovingly of childhood summers on the beach at Shoreham by Sea.
The days were made perfect by a thermos of warm, sweet, milk tea and a brown bag of sandwiches, each carefully wrapped in wax paper. "They were the best sandwiches." she said with a sigh.
I waited for a description of what was in this seaside treat. Perhaps some sliced lamb with mango chutney on thick slices of wheat bread. Not quite. "They were these wonderful soggy tomato sandwiches," she said with real affection.
It was then I realized even a hand dripping with crushed tomatoes and soggy bread can be a picnic lover's delight. If you agree, here is the recipe for the ideal British beach picnic sandwich.