"Do we have to have our picnic outdoors?" asked the 7-year-old, his eyes following a line of ants marching their way toward gluttony.
"Absolutely not," said his father, who had been dubious from the beginning about this fresh air affair. And the two indoor men retired to the front seat of their car to nibble chicken in heavenly peace, away from the intrustion of bugs, slugs, bees and breezes.
An al fresco fiasco, it was also a reminder that picnics, like the classic news story, benefit from being subjected to the test of who, what, where, when and why.
Who? People with a tolerance for things that go wrong, since they probably will. One committed grumbler -- complaining of warm wine, mashed hard boiled eggs and the lumpy ground beneath him -- can spoil the day for everyone. On the other hand, a day in the country can turn even a concrete cowboy into a rural Pan, proponent ever after of outdoor revels. When in doubt, give the guy a chance.
What? Food, of course. Why not have a Chinese picnic, or a Greek one, or Italian? Stop at a Chinese restaurant and order dishes to take out to the country, where you can arrange the little white boxes in the center of the cloth and surround them with paper plates and chopsticks. Serve Chinese beer, and fortune cookies for dessert, but skip the rice. Most Chinese food is even better cold, but the rice simply gets gummy.
Or slice Greek sausages and serve them along with containers of hummus and taramasalata and pita bread. Vegetables a la Grecque, of course, and flaky slices of spanokopita. For dessert, Greek butter cookies or sticky sweet pieces of baklava. Open two or three bottles of retsina and, when the wine has gone, watch the men turn into Zorba, dancing around the meadow.
Italian dishes are also good finger food, like an antipasto of salami, mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, olives and slices of red and green pepper. If you toss tortellini with a really thick tomato sauce and serve it at room temperature, it can also be eaten with the fingers. Stuff a jug full of bread sticks (forego butter; it would melt all over everything) and serve fruit and amaretto cookies for dessert.
Many stores stock high-priced picnic baskets which look wonderful -- as compact and as artfully arranged as a doll's trunk. But unless it's a doll's picnic you're planning, don't bother to buy one. They are so well stocked with plates and the like that there's little room left for food. Instead, get a large, sturdy basket and stock it yourself. You'll not only have knives, forks and plates, but room enough for the food to put on them. Add a few ice packs to keep drinks cool and either those individually packaged, wet paper towels, or a wash cloth for each picnicker, soaked in lavender water and kept moist in a plastic bag.
Where? Anywhere, as long as you plan in advance. This is not a time for serendipity, since, that perfect meadow usually has wire fences and "keep out" signs. Sometimes, if you ask the owners, they will let you picnic in the perfect meadow, but often as not the owner is nowhere in sight and a herd of cattle is. Parks are an obvious place, and so are the grounds of historic houses, though not all of them allow picnicking. Unless as a child you were taught to hold your breath when passing a cemetery lest the devil take your soul, a meal among the grave stones of a small, rural cemetery can be a pleasant and peaceful experience.
Once you've chosen the spot, you are better able to plan the food. If it's a long hike from the car, skip the fancy dishes and concentrate on things that are easily portable. Beaches are awful on salads and pasta. Most appropriately, sandwiches are best since they suffer least.
When? Why not the different. Really different with a pre-work picnic breakfast in a local park, or a Sunday brunch in the country complete with Bloody Mary's and the Sunday papers. Or a formal picnic tea in your own backyard, set out with lace tablecloths, delicate china and cucumber sandwiches.
Why? If you need a reason, Mid-summer's Eve is almost upon us. Search out a woodland glade and invite friends to a late-night supper where the combination of candlelight and summer solstice superstitions will make for a magical evening. The guests could wear costumes -- Oberon or Titania, Puck or Bottom. And how could anyone resist an invitation that assures them, in the words of the Fairie Queen, that,
"The summer still doth tend upon my state;
"And I do love thee: therefore go with me;
"I'll give thee faires to attend on thee,
"And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
"And sing, while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep. . . ."