A Harte Appetite: Let's Have a Picnic

Jul 22, 2019

Though Southeast Missouri's muggy summer climate may occasionally test it, I've always held the conviction that there's something special about alfresco dining. Whereas Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, one of the high priests of gastronomy, put it, the universe is your drawing room and the sun your lamp.

Perhaps it's because the great outdoors enhances the appetite and produces, as Brillat-Savarin observed, "a vivacity unknown indoors." Whatever the reason, I don't think I've ever been to a picnic I didn't enjoy, even if, the affair ended in rain.

It makes perfect sense to me that Webster's defines a picnic as "a pleasure outing at which a meal is eaten outdoors" but notes that the word has become slang for any pleasant experience. For the word picnic to me has always connoted celebration, even when there was really nothing in particular to celebrate - other than the fact that the weather has changed sufficiently to permit outdoor dining in the first place.

A good picnic doesn't have to be elaborate or fancy to be successful, though as Julia Child has argued, a little luxury can make a lot of difference. She says, "Paper plates and plastic forks have their place...in a brown bag. At a real picnic, I like real cutlery."

Perhaps the most elegant picnic I've ever heard of was the one thrown by the Duke of Suffolk to surprise his men during World War II. As his troops were marching back to London, he called them to a halt and out from behind a hedge appeared his butler in a Rolls Royce laden with crystal, silver, damask and hampers of food.

Probably my favorite picnic was a relatively modest affair consisting only of crusty French bread, pate and wine but the setting made all the difference. My companions and I sat on the log in the woods adjacent to Chenonceau, one of the great French chateaus in the Loire Valley. At that point I grasped fully what Sander Wolf must have had in mind when he said, "It's never been the food that makes the picnic, it's always been the attitude."