This is the time of year when many people’s thoughts turn to all sorts of outdoor entertainments, particularly picnics. Summer and picnics just seem to go together for a lot of us. I say “seem” because, when it comes down to it, I don’t really like dining outside very much. I always think that I should–as so much of my life’s reading has involved romantic accounts of picnics in the gracious English countryside or on magnificent windswept coasts overlooking the Pacific. The reality of my actual picnic experience though has been far different. For example, the food never quite matches my literary memories of delectable cucumber sandwiches sliced utra-thin and steamed Dungeness crabs pulled straight from the water an hour before. While I love deviled eggs and watermelon, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly romantic about them. And then there are the physical discomforts. The heat! The sun! The mosquitoes! Whenever someone asks me if I would agree with the adage “everything tastes better outdoors,” my answer is a quick and definitive “It depends.”
As it happens, National Picnic Week begins on Sunday, June 13, this year. While I possess the celebratory spirit as much as anyone, if someone invites me to a picnic, my first question will always be “Will there be an umbrella involved?” There had better be, because otherwise I’m eating my deviled eggs inside. You may not agree with me, and if you are a picnic lover looking for new recipe ideas or someone new to picnicking who needs inspiration, then DCPL has what you need. See, for example, Country Living, Eating Outdoors: Sensational Recipes for Cookouts, Picnics and Take-Along Food from the editors of Country Living magazine for plenty of ideas. When I’m being completely honest with myself though, I have to admit that I prefer experiencing outdoor eating vicariously through books. Literature is surprisingly filled with meals of all sorts, and some of those meals happen outside. Here are some of my favorite examples.
There’s a scene in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier in which Ada and Ruby go to check on the progress of an apple orchard. The women have so far survived the extreme hardships brought on by the Civil War through a combination of Ada’s determination and Ruby’s intelligence and survival skills. For their picnic, the women take cold fried chicken left over from the previous night’s dinner, cucumber slices in vinegar, and a potato salad for which Ruby, true to form, has “whipped up the mayonnaise.”
Readers of Jane Austen will be familiar with two dramatically different scenes in Emma. In the first, Mr. Knightley has suggested a luncheon following strawberry picking at his elegant estate, Donwell Abbey. He listens, for a few moments, to the lovable, yet frustrating Emma wax rhapsodic about large bonnets, small baskets and tables spread out under the trees. “Everything as natural and simple as possible,” Emma declares. Mr. Knightley replies in his usual dry fashion, “The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors. When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there shall be cold meat in the house.” The next day, the same party goes to Box Hill, where Emma believes that all her wishes for the ideal pastoral picnic will come true. Instead, the day turns into a bit of a disaster. “There was a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over.” Emma winds up thoughtlessly insulting the well-meaning and inoffensive Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley (who Emma is in love with, although she doesn’t know it yet) confronts her with her behavior, and the group finally leaves the scenic spot carrying away with them hurt feelings and anger.
Kenneth Grahame describes a very different sort of picnic in The Wind in the Willows. Ratty decides to prepare a picnic for a French seafaring rat he has just met. Ratty truly wants to please his new friend, and so “remembering the stranger’s origins and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.” How could disagreements erupt over such delicious, and poetic, food?
Finally, we come to Women In Love by D.H. Lawrence in which Lawrence paints a scene that may come closest to my fantasies of the perfect English picnic. The sisters Ursula and Gudrun, the “women in love” of the title, have had a long swim. “When they had run and danced themselves, the girls quickly dressed and sat facing the slope of the grassy hill, alone in a little wild world of their own.” They lunch on hot tea, “delicious little sandwiches of cucumber and of caviare” and cakes described as “winy.” Ursula asks Gudrun if she is happy, and Gudrun replies that she is perfectly so–and really, who wouldn’t be, sitting in such an idyllic setting and eating such wonderful food?
Still, when it comes to eating al fresco, I side with Mr. Knightley. Give me a table indoors anytime and let me go on dreaming about perfect picnics.
What about you? Do love a classic picnic and where would it be? What is your ideal picnic food and what is your favorite literary picnic?