The Pros and Cons of Picnics

The Hausfrau is, pretty much by definition, someone who wants to avoid the Great Outdoors. If I have to be near nature, it has to be under controlled circumstances, or there will be hell to pay: I become very unpleasant to be around, very quickly, if those needs are not met. One, there must be proper bathrooms within easy walking distance. Two, there are certain creature comforts that must be brought along for the duration. These include, but are not limited to: good food; appealing reading material; and something comfortable to sit on that separates my tush from nature. I don’t require sunscreen. I don’t require a tent (though maybe I should). I don’t see what’s so appealing about being uncomfortable, and it always seems to me that being outdoors equates to being uncomfortable. I have never gone on a hike, and I plan to keep it that way.

However, I have a child, and that child finds picnics delightful. So does her father. Over the years, as a result, we have developed a pretty solid system for picnicking. There are different versions of our picnics; we select which version we’re doing based on where we are going. And the quantity of preparation involved depends entirely on which type of picnic is anticipated, and how long we will be away from home.

The short, easy version of a picnic is what my daughter and I do when we have lunch in the courtyard of our apartment building. This is the most bare-bones picnic I do, which should alarm you. Supplies include:

Large, easily laundered blanket or tablecloth; cloth napkins; an entree; a crunchy snacky thing to have on the side (e.g. potato chips or similar); something light, juicy, and crunchy to eat, like sliced cucumbers or grape tomatoes; some cold fruit; beverages; some small sweet thing for dessert; reading material. The blanket is carried outside and spread out by my daughter while I stand holding a tray on which everything else is stacked. A picnic like this generally lasts about an hour, maybe 90 minutes if we decide to lie down on the picnic cloth and just read for a while after eating, or if my daughter decides to go look for praying mantises while I lie down and read. Cleanup is simple. Everything is stacked back onto the tray, and the blanket is rolled up, and things are carried back into the house.

A more involved version of this picnic is the setup we use when we go to the pool to spend a few hours. Depending on the time of day, we either need to bring lunch and snack with us, or snack and dinner. Either way, the above list is (minus the tray) packed into a large tote bag with some carefully arranged additions: the drinks might, for example, be packed into Ziploc bags containing ice. This keeps the beverages and everything else cold, which is important on a hot summer day, but keeps the entire enterprise still highly portable, which is also important because we take the bus. The two of us have to be able to carry all of our stuff comfortably for a distance equal to roughly two blocks. That’s not so far, but I can promise you that carrying a heavy cooler two blocks would be no fun. So: bigass tote bag, and bags of ice (which serve a dual purpose, because you can use the ice water, if you want to, to rinse hands, cool foreheads, or even drink, if it comes to that).

If my husband is joining into the picnic things will become even more elaborate, because then we usually have the luxury of being driven to the picnic location. If we are headed to a beach, then a beach umbrella is involved. Using a car means we can use the cooler and the tote bag, or even two coolers (one for food, one for drinks).  It means things are likely to get pretty elaborate.  Food that requires plates, forks, knives, food that will be cooked on-site on a grill. Ziploc bags of food will be prepped and sealed up for safe travel — marinated steak or chicken; sliced veggies on skewers; the various components for a salad to be assembled upon arrival. Salad dressing goes into an old spice jar or an old jam jar, depending on how much dressing is needed. All forks, knives, and spoons are packed into their own Ziploc bag, so they’re clean when we sit down to eat; and after we eat, when they’re dirty, they go back into the bag to be carried home for washing without getting other things all gunked up while in transit.

Often, it is necessary to have sharp knives with us when we are having this kind of picnic. Sharp knives require special packing effort. Because we are not professional chefs, we don’t have one of those snazzy rolls for safely toting knives around, but I’ve managed to come up with a fairly acceptable homemade system, which involves using dishtowels to wrap the knives up, and rubber bands to secure the little bundles. So long as only my husband and I unwrap them, it works fine (our daughter knows to not help unpack those items).

It is smart to bring a light plastic cutting board or two on a serious picnic. Something thick enough that you can safely use it on the ground, if you have to — not just one of those flexible plastic mats that seem so perfect for picnics because they’re so light and take up so little space. They’re also so light they’ll blow away in a strong breeze. Leave those at home and get something a little sturdier and pack it into the tote bag. If you’ve got a nice loaf of bread you want to slice to eat with the meal, you don’t want to cut it on the birshit-covered picnic table, do you? And after you’ve covered the birdshit covered picnic table with a cloth, you still don’t want to use the cloth as a cutting board. Bring a cutting board.

Cloth napkins are preferable to paper napkins because they’re also not so likely to blow away in the wind while you’re at table/on picnic blanket. That said, it is smart to bring along at least part of a roll of paper towels, because they can be really useful. Paper towels — which I almost never use at home — are the kind of thing that takes almost no effort to pack, and doesn’t seem like a big deal, and you think, “eh, it doesn’t matter, the napkins will be fine.” And if you leave them at home, everything is fine until you run into trouble (you need to clean up some big mess/want to drain something/want something disposable to rest a bacteria-laden object on) and don’t have anything appropriate.  And then you find yourself asking the air around you, “Does anyone have any paper towels?” So do yourself a favor and just pack some paper towels. If you don’t want to carry a whole roll, just tear off ten or so towels and pack them into something that will keep them clean, dry, and unrumpled. If you don’t use them on this jaunt, you can keep them safe for the next outing.

Stacks of paper plates are a good idea if you can’t have proper place settings. Some people have plastic dishes they use for picnics; I admire that but we don’t have any and I’ve yet to convince myself to invest in any, but am definitely not taking my proper plates to and fro for picnics. I know that it’s not environmentally friendly to use paper plates, but sometimes in life we make compromises. Mine is using the occasional small stack of paper plates. Sue me. Similarly, I don’t have a supply of plastic cups I reserve for picnics. We drink cans of seltzer or bottles of beer from the can or bottle, and call it a day. Wine drinkers; you’re on your own, I have no sage advice for you.

So you haul all this stuff to the place where you will be picnicking. If you’re going to cook, you set up your on-the-road mise en place. Someone mans the grill while someone else sets the table: tablecloth goes down first, whether it’s on the ground or on an actual table. Anchor the corners of the tablecloth with heavy-ish objects that everyone will need as the meal progresses — cans of seltzer, or bottles of condiments; the bag of cutlery can anchor one corner until the contents are pressed into use.

You set the table in such a way that it’s comfortable. You want everyone enjoying the meal to be able to enjoy the meal; no one should sit down to eat and not know where their napkin is, or where their fork is. Just because you’re eating outside, it doesn’t mean you have to live like animals. You don’t have to have dirt in your food. And you don’t need special gear, those fancy picnic basket sets (or not so fancy ones, even) that look so charming. Believe me, I think they look charming, too, but I’m convinced they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Most of us have what it takes to haul our stuff to a picnic without investing $30, let alone $150, on special picnic gear. You own serving spoons; bring a few with you so that you’ve got a way to serve your green salad and your fruit salad with different implements. You don’t want vinaigrette on your watermelon and blueberries, do you? No, you don’t. So just pack some spoons. Pack some tongs. If you’re going to do this, do it right.

Because — and this is crucial — I know it seems as though you’re preparing for Armageddon, when you’re packing up. But when you come back home, there won’t be as much stuff, because most of it will have been eaten. And then it’s just a matter of washing up. If you used paper plates, well, you threw those out already, right? It’s a matter of silverware and serving utensils, maybe a couple of trays, your cutting boards, the bowls you packed your salads in… it’s really not so bad. Now that we have a dishwasher, it’s pretty easy for me to just carry the tote bag of dirty stuff to the dishwasher and load the machine straight from the bag. Leftovers are already in bags or plastic tubs ready to go into the fridge. The tablecloth goes into the laundry with the napkins (and the beach towels and bathing suits that probably have to be laundered anyway). And if you never had to open your packet of paper towels, really, you’re ahead of the game for the next outing.

The really fun part of planning a picnic, as I learned from Laurie Colwin years ago, is the same thing that’s really fun about attending a picnic: the food. That is what I’ll talk about next: the food.

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