Every May and June, Southern magazines are bursting with picnic recipes and tips. Each article portrays Rockwellian scenes of either immaculately manicured lawns, blossoming trees, and tables set with colorful linen, silverware, china, and fresh cut flowers OR red and white checkered blankets, intricately woven wicker baskets, long stemmed wine glasses, and matching service ware. As a rule, well-dressed couples and playful children complete both scenes. Some present mouth-watering casseroles, carafes of “sweet” tea, and gorgeous cakes and pies; others depict heaping trays of grilled meats and vegetables, bowls brimming with colorful salads, and molded Jell-o with floating fruit. “Simpler” picnics feature displays of wooden cutting boards covered in paper-thin slices of imported cured meats and beautiful artisan cheeses, cloth-lined baskets of crusty baguettes, platters of sliced fruit, and chilled wine bottles reposing in silver ice buckets.
Growing up in a Northern city, picnics of that sort (despite being touted annually in the New York Times) were quite uncommon. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to remember any that even remotely resemble those. The scarcity of places to picnic was one reason. Sure, we had a few parks, but they weren’t for picnicking; they were for playing. Our parks held ball fields, tracks, swing sets, concrete chess tables, and pigeon-riddled statues, not picnic tables, gazebos, lush flower gardens, or grassy alcoves. A picnic here involved police sirens, garbage pails overflowing with empty “Happy Meal” boxes and Styrofoam takeout containers, and bums begging for money. It also meant we had to dodge errant balls and be careful not to sit on broken glass.
If we wanted a “real” picnic, we had to drive to “the country.” Bringing me to the other reason we didn’t picnic much: Preparing and cooking food, cooling it, packaging it, loading it into the car, and driving over an hour to “the country” to eat it was actually a full weekend event and, thus, not necessarily regarded as time well spent. An opinion I could neither comprehend nor appreciate as a child.
Instead, we would stay home and spend those saved moments enjoying each other. Sometimes, when we wanted to eat outside, we would make sandwiches and “iced” tea, bring them into the yard, and eat at what we called the “picnic table.” However, most would refer to it now as “patio furniture.” Other times we’d have a cookout for “just us” (me, my parents, my maternal grandparents- who lived next door- and my sister). Maybe my dad would grill sausage and peppers that we’d pile on Portuguese rolls or a cut-up chicken that he’d slather with Saucy Susan. I can still smell that sweet sauce cooking over the charcoal fire. On the occasional Sunday, my mother might whip up a quick marinara sauce, and we’d have what my sister called “a macaroni picnic,” though, now, it is called “dining al fresco.” Then, after we had eaten, we’d play cards and wait for the Mr. Softee truck to bring us dessert. Those were our picnics — and those of our friends and extended families.
But my favorite “picnic” memories are of unpretentiously eating on the stoop (the steps leading to the entrance of our building) with my grandfather. We’d often start a summer morning dunking a roll and butter (a poppy crusted Kaiser gilded with more than a quarter inch of salted butter) into a container of coffee (an old school American coffee in a Grecian decorated takeout cup) from the diner down the block. When he had the day off, we’d buy salami sandwiches from the deli across the street and have lunch on the stoop, just sitting, talking or sometimes not, eating, and watching the cars go by. I miss those days … and I miss him.
Only when I had kids of my own did I realize the value of conserving time and making memories. I learned it doesn’t matter if you have found that idyllic setting for a picnic, own the perfect patio set for dinner in the yard, or simply “settle” for the stoop. Just grab your family and eat outside. Create memories to cherish for a lifetime!