Memorial Day, besides its most worthy reason for being celebrated, is dear to the American heart as the inaugurator of summer getaway weekend season. And with that inevitably comes the popular outdoor picnic, A.K.A., as far as I am concerned, “The Big Schlepp.”
To me this solemn weekend of remembrance signals the time to hide, lest I be invited on what is surely the messiest and most agonizingly uncomfortable of all traditional feasts. It’s not that the idea of dining outside has no appeal to me, but the execution usually leaves me craving creature comforts.
Were modern American picnics at all like the Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the grass) as depicted in the 1862 painting by Édouard Manet, I might rush to join. No impinging crowds or air stifled by clouds of burning grease from grills, no random baseballs or horseshoes, no sticky children needing bathrooms, no fear of food poisoning via overly warm mayonnaise in the potato salad, neither beach sand nor woodland insects to brush off: just two couples in a sylvan hideaway sharing simple ready-to-eat fare that seems to consist only of fruit, bread, and maybe a few chunks of cheese.
Of course, I might balk if I were expected to play the role of the voluptuous, totally naked young woman or even of the other model, a diaphanously veiled nymph in the background where she appears to be looking for a four-leaf clover. That state of undress seems especially insulting considering that the two male companions are fully clothed, complete with hats, jackets, and cravats.
Abundantly, lavishly clothed women are treated more fairly if less enticingly by Claude Monet in his 1865 version of this painting, done as an homage to Manet and though his group numbers about a dozen, all seems peaceful and under control.
To be sure, the outdoor air on the right of kind of balmy, mildly sunny, gently breezy day can be an unparalleled seasoning and I have experienced enough pleasurable outdoor meals to prove it.
Among my best picnics were those I enjoyed in France during my first visit in 1953. Driving around the countryside it was possible to pull over to some small patch of woods or at the edge of a vineyard, and lunch on the simple but invariably excellent quick foods that were available almost everywhere: wonderfully varied cheeses, crusty yeast-infused breads, excruciatingly delicious charcuterie, such as the most plebian tranche of pâté de campagne or the aromatic salami that is rosette de Lyon, and, always, fully ripe, sweetly perfumed fruits, including grapes, cherries, peaches, and even pears.
But as the years wore on and I tried to repeat these picnics, the odds against success rapidly increased. More and more potential picnic spaces were “Posted” as in “Trespassers Beware,” and it became harder to find the simple foods really well prepared as mass production took hold. As far back as 35 or 40 years ago, when I interviewed legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent about French food, he said, “Today you need an address,” meaning you could no longer just wander into any shop and expect to find the best.
An especially sad turn of events, considering that the very word picnic is generally considered of 17th century French origin, as pique (to pick) and nique (more or less a little nothing, maybe it’s from the German). The first use of the English word picnic is credited to G.K. Lord Chesterton who included the term in a 1748 letter.
These days I confine my picnics to the small garden I am fortunate enough to have but I never cook outdoors. You might be surprised to know how good hot dogs and hamburgers can be grilled on kitchen ranges or broilers where they do not develop the acrid overtones imparted by charcoal.
And once in a while with the proper companion, I repeat a favored picnic of the past. On many long summer evenings from say, mid-June to just after Labor Day, my late husband and I loved taking sandwiches and drinks to a bench along Hudson River Park, just a few blocks from our West Village home. Our menu rarely differed: sandwiches either of cool, silky-thin slices of pickled beef tongue or of equally thin and very rare roast beef on caraway-flecked New York rye bread, lightly spread with a marbling of sweet butter and Dijon mustard and a cooler of chilled Carlsberg beer.
Thus sated, we watched languorous riverboat and sky plane activity as the sun went down like thunder over New Jersey ’cross the bay, or, more accurately, ’cross the river, this being a long way from Mandalay.