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Americans love picnics – except when they don't

Our attitudes toward picnicking are usually based on childhood memories.

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This is the American picnic "dream": It is a warm, yet not too warm, summer day. Beneath the sheltering limbs of an old oak tree, a gentle breeze cools a happy family of four. Dad and the kids – one boy, one girl, both gifted – spread a red-and-white-checked cloth on the greenest of green grass. Mom opens a wooden hamper to reveal a feast of crisply fried (not by the Colonel) chicken, a Yukon Gold potato salad alive with bites of crunchy yellow pepper, crisp bacon, and sweet red onion, plus a creamy coleslaw with two – make it three – kinds of cabbage. And, finally, gooey, but never messy, brownies for dessert.

That's the fantasy for some people. For others, the picnic dream is more of a nightmare; slightly less sweet and definitely less crunchy: The chicken is soggy, the potato salad was made days ago by a deli worker who overcooked the potatoes, and the coleslaw was forgotten and is still at home. No matter what the dessert, it will leave stains on your shirt. The setting, a sun-baked park, is filled with the cacophony of imploring mothers and ignoring children. Divebombing flies compete for every bit of your food; all of which, even though you're not at the beach, is somehow filled with sand.

There doesn't seem to be a middle lawn when it comes to what picnicking represents to people.

When I asked my food-obsessed friends to take a position for or against dining alfresco sans table, there were an almost equal number of lovers and loathers.

What was consistent, however, was how many of the responses were based on memories – either cherished or shudder-inducing – of childhood picnics. One old friend, for instance, still remembers those "magical weenie roasts" in a forest preserve when her mother would pack a thermos of chilled potato soup kept cool and undiluted by the addition of frozen cubes of the same soup.


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