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Rites of Spring

When the weather warms up we love to take our food outside--there's just something about all that fresh air

By Christina Waters

WHAT IS IT ABOUT taking food outdoors to eat? Such a simple transition, a mere threshold to cross, and yet the huge pleasure gained is undeniable. A handful of pretzels joined by cold beer, consumed out under the open sky, can take on a poetry few four-course three-star dinners can provide. Freshly caught fish grilled over an open fire on a beach in Mexico, eaten right off the wooden skewer, pleased me as much as a fancy venison stew at a Left Bank bistro. Like kids everywhere, my sister and I would scour the woods near our house each spring, hunting for berries. They never made it back to the house and comprised our favorite alfresco snack. Blackberries, warm from the sun, eaten immediately upon picking--tomatoes devoured while standing in the sun-warmed garden. Whose mouth does not happily recall these open-air orgies? And perhaps above all, foods cooked over an open fire always taste especially delicious. Doesn't this make you hungry for that childhood Eden in which, simply by virtue of being consumed outdoors, everything tasted somehow more alive, more vibrant?

Probing the tea leaves to discover why the woodland berries, the beach barbecue, the hilltop picnic all linger long in our imaginations, I find myself circling back to that common element--childhood. Children habitually take foods outside to eat or eat their school lunches outside the classroom. And--another clue to the enduring joys of outdoor meals--children also adore escaping the formality of knives and forks. The earliest foods were consumed sans implements. And that cultural memory is still in our hands, which take so much pleasure in the feel of apples, the juiciness of dripping berries and the sensuous exteriors of nuts, cookies, carrots, corn on the cob, chips, pretzels and everything else that we roll up into the category "finger food." We're getting closer to the allure of the picnic. It provides an excuse to eat with our hands. Even though the inner Martha Stewart in each of us tries to remember to bring knives, forks, spoons, as well as plates and napkins to anything worth calling a picnic, what we all secretly hope is that these restrictive social imperatives will somehow get lost or forgotten and we'll be free to hold a slab of cake in our hands, or tear apart the cold chicken with our fingers.

Finger foods lie at the heart of the alfresco meal. But the alfresco part of the equation provides the other important factor influencing the disproportionately vast appeal of the picnic. When you're outdoors on a fine day, you're probably running around, climbing up and down hills, cliffs, rocks or splashing around in the surf. In other words, you're doing what is commonly known as "working up an appetite." No wonder that frappucino and scone manage to taste unnaturally delicious. You're ravenous. The fresh air alone is stimulating to all the appetites, much less running around in the fresh air, under the open sky.

Foods for outdoor dining, whether they're full-on picnics carried in wicker hampers or backpacks to a remote spot with a stupendous view, or simply a skewer of marinated veggies and prawns grilled in your own backyard, tend toward the simple. That's another part of their charm. The less fussing, cutting and arranging, the better. And that's why such picnic favorites as cold chicken, potato salad, cherry tomatoes, fresh fruit, brownies and beer straight out of the bottle have become classics. Except for a fork for the salad, everything can be consumed without so much as lifting a spoon.

It comes as no surprise that the culinarily prescient French, who gave us outdoor cafes, baguettes and attitude, also gave us the pique-nique, from whence the English word, picnic. Originally, their concept was of a meal in which everybody brought a dish to share. But the informal Gallic potluck became our notion of an outdoor dining experience, almost always informal and usually in some pastoral country (or faux country) setting. A neighborhood park, a beach, a meadow, almost anywhere you can see the sky and take off your shoes qualifies as a picnic setting.

Now the picnic for two has its own special rationale. Nothing is as romantic as consuming food in a quiet spot, with someone you love, feeding them little morsels from your very own fingers. Due to its highly arousing nature, outdoor dining for two should be undertaken in, shall we say, secluded settings. For these memorable alfresco experiences we recommend bringing foods in keeping with the ritual courtship archetype. Smoked salmon, a baguette and some champagne (pack the Igloo with ice and a split of Veuve Clicquot) should do the trick nicely. However, groups do picnics as well. For good reason. The outdoor gathering joined by food, drink and maybe some bocce ball or kite-flying is a perfect solution to those parties too large to be held comfortably indoors. Unless you live in the Fairmont and have access to a ballroom for your annual Mother's Day celebration, you might want to consider a rendezvous at a scenic fire pit on the beach. Take that humble hot dog, burrito or spring roll outdoors and it turns into something instantly festive.

The picnic party is easy. It happens quickly, and it's a lot cheaper than renting a banquet room. For large-scale rites of spring involving feeding a cast of dozens, you'll want to delegate. Nothing simpler. Somebody brings paper plates, napkins and cups. Somebody else brings mesquite and beer. And yet another person does marinated chicken and veggies, while others can provide dessert. Taking off shoes and running around gets you in the mood. In the case of outdoor grilling, the very act of tending the fire, turning the food, is highly interactive. Everybody "helps" cook the meal, and somehow that makes it even more delicious.

Serious devotees of outdoor dining know that spontaneity is one of its greatest charms. A hike is more than simply exercise in a wilderness setting if you can stop at the top of the hill, spread out a blanket and feast on something--anything. So the wise spontaneous diner has in her car at all times the following or its equivalent: bottled water, a bag of pretzels and a bottle of decent red wine, plus a corkscrew. You probably don't want to lug wine uphill, but it makes a great impromptu happy hour at that scenic overlook. More must-haves include: paper plates, napkins and a sharp knife. Crackers, dried fruit and trail mix (Trader Joe's has a terrific house brand). In the right setting, trail mix qualifies as a culinary item. Also, remember that full enjoyment of your outdoor meal--whatever and wherever it involves--calls for sunscreen, insect repellent and a stash of zip-lock bags. Carry these at all times, and may the god of picnic, Al Fresco, smile upon you!

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From the April 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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