Life’s a picnic

Hot dogs on picnic table

There must be some science behind this, some equation to calculate the exponential increase in deliciousness when food is taken outside and eaten.

Peanut butter sandwich inside: Yum.

Peanut butter sandwich outside: Holy explosion of flavor! YUM!!

So, unfurl your sturdiest quilt — you know the one, made from double-knit and old blue jeans, kept in the car trunk for just such occasions — or dust the pollen and twigs off the table and bench. This is about picnics.

July, unsurprisingly, is National Picnic Month. Or maybe it is surprising, July being one of the hottest months. But it seems that ever since humans first scampered under shelter, they scampered back out to enjoy a refreshing nosh.

That, however, was merely eating. Survival. At what point did — and does it still — the act of eating outside become a picnic?

Cookbook author DeeDee Stovel, in the introduction to her “Picnic: 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menus,” wrote, “A picnic is more than eating a meal, it is a pleasurable state of mind. ‘Let’s go on a picnic’ means ‘Let’s have fun.’ “

So, two essential elements of the picnic are outside and fun. What else makes the picnic?

“Easy cleanup,” said Monica Atkinson, owner of Whitewater West in Grand Junction, with a laugh. “That’s my sum total.”

A veteran rafter of the region’s rivers, Atkinson is, by extension, a veteran picnicker “and you don’t want to have a lot to wash up, especially when there’s no water other than river water. You want it to be self-contained and not messy.”

At this point it bears mentioning that there are two main types of picnics: the ones where you can park nearby and the ones where you can’t.

The picnics where you can’t park nearby tend to be miles down dirt roads or dozens of miles from a refrigerator. They require a self-sufficiency that encourages simplicity and judicious use of mayonnaise.

The ones in which you can park nearby are, often, at the park and the meal comes together accordingly.

“If you’re going to the park, you can plan some things that take a little more preparation and you can zip down there,” said Dixie Burmeister, a food columnist and longtime advocate of healthy eating. “If you’re going up to the mesa for a picnic, you want to make sure you’ve packed things that are easy to serve.”

Beyond the location, though, the food’s the thing. Shelves full of cookbooks and desperate food editors straining for a new take on the picnic may encourage meals that include things like couscous, say, or dragon fruit. And that’s all fine. Delicious, in fact. There’s a heightened sense of adventure in adding new foods to the picnic menu, and Burmeister advocates it.

“Always, I think, a picnic needs to include a traditional food that makes it that way,” she said. “For (my husband), it’s the baked beans. I think what makes the perfect picnic, too, is traditional things that your family thinks of as a-must for a picnic.”

David Fitzpatrick, owner of Grand Junction’s Berna B’s Classic Cuisine and Catering, said when he and his staff cater a picnic, they’re often asked for a menu that includes fried chicken or potato salad.

“When I’m booking picnic parties, I’m pulling out of my mom’s and grandmother’s picnic repertoire,” Fitzpatrick said. “We think about the traditional picnic foods because that’s what everybody remembers. They remember the Jell-o salad that grandma made.”

The picnic standard, then, varies, because everyone’s picnic memories and expectations are different. Ultimately, the point is to be outside with food at the ready and in cheerful company.

“Seating themselves on the green sward they eat while the corks fly and there is talk, laughter and merriment, and perfect freedom, for the universe is their drawing room and the sun their lamp,” wrote 18th century French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. “Besides, they have appetite, nature’s special gift, which lends to such a meal a vivacity unknown indoors, however beautiful the surroundings.”

In one of life’s great mysteries — has science yet figured out why? — food is delicious outside.

In “Five Go Off in a Caravan,” author Enid Blyton’s Famous Five understood: “Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.

“‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”

And that’s probably it, then, the fresh air, the sunshine, the boiled egg dipped in salt, cheerful friends nearby. A picnic could be on a blanket in the backyard or sitting on a log 75 miles from the nearest road.

“A picnic, it’s just sharing love between family and friends,” Fitzpatrick said.

The ants may come and the rain may fall — sometimes disaster makes the most memorable picnics — but at the first hint of sun and blue sky, there’s the eternal impulse to unfurl a blanket and let it drift with a parachute fall onto the ground, gather friends onto it like it’s the Good Ship Lollipop, and bite into the world’s most delicious sandwich with a picnic appetite.


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