With the long sultry days of summer upon us, the tingly allure of a day at the beach or a road trip often beckons, usually presenting itself as a spur-of-the-moment notion to take advantage of good weather. No matter who you are or where you’ve lived, you likely have a picnic tradition: perhaps childhood memories of a special sandwich or the European habit of happily spreading lunch out on a blanket anywhere at all. Strong feelings exist around food and as a result there are numerous picnic styles – archetypes, if you will – that you may recognize either in yourself, or in the person you with whom you are dining al fresco.
The Picnic Masters – The person who packs this lunch is definitely a find. (And a kind hello to my brother if he’s reading this!) A lightweight insulated bag unzips to reveal tiny goat cheese tartlets with sundried tomatoes and a chilled sangria made from crisp local cider with fresh blueberries nodding in the decorative jar; obviously, these people never forget glasses. Blushing Muscat grapes in tidy pre-cut bunches, precision-cubed watermelon and ice cold potato salad vinaigrette (mayonnaise might spoil) appear next, followed by a tiny angel food cake. There are triangles of toasted pita and a crock of homemade hummus (dusted with rose paprika) for those who are merely peckish.
The Hunger Gamer – This style is sometimes seen amongst campers. Food has to be provided – and it is – but the entire affair has a kind of grisly desperation about it. Tins of strange and odd smelling stews may appear (politely decline anything with a German Shepherd’s profile on the label) and often utensils may be overlooked or just deemed unnecessary. I once had a boyfriend who brought a camping stove to our picnic and went on to further impress me by gently boiling quail eggs for a Salad Niçoise; however, when he nimbly decanted the same egg water into mugs for our tea (“saves time and you’d never know”) I knew this particular episode of Brideshead would not be revisited.
The Romantic – This style of eating differs from The Picnic Master’s in its nod to history and tradition. These are the soft-focus people who actually own wicker picnic baskets with matching cutlery in the lid. They can often be seen wearing large brimmed straw hats, a vintage thermos flask looped through two fingers. Cold cooked chicken, tortière, crusty bread they purchased along the way and fresh figs or raspberries will be unpacked onto a cheery cloth. There’s a lot of effort in this style – and never any children. If done properly, onlookers assume that someone on staff at Downton Abbey has lovingly packed the whole thing up for them.
The Desperado – We’ve all been there. In an effort to get out of the house, dull and boring items of food are quickly assembled and stowed into that old fashioned cooler that lies waiting in the basement, chuckling darkly to itself as we forget year after year that it takes three burly men to lift it before there’s even anything inside. Eerily flat peanut butter sandwiches will soon float desperately in the bottom – this cooler also leaks – amidst bruised apples, granola bars that no one really liked in their packed lunches either and some cans of no-name cola that are poised to explode. The sandwiches will be ritually disposed of at a nearby bin (unless someone feeds them to the seagulls which never ends well). Thank goodness for the french fry shack where piping hot and reliably toothsome chips can be purchased and sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar. Harmony is restored once more.
Whatever style you choose to embrace, be sure to take advantage of this fleeting, golden time of year – because even a store bought sandwich will taste far superior if eaten under a willow tree.
SUE SUTHERLAND WOOD is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.