The Urban Picnic: Being an Idiosyncratic and Lyrically Recollected Account of Menus, Recipes, History, Trivia, and Admonitions on the Subject of Alfresco Dining in Cities Both Large and Small, John Burns and Elisabeth Caton

Last Monday, after surviving my first road race (the incredible – and incredibly hot – Bolder Boulder 10k in Boulder, Colorado), I was sitting with my husband and his family in the CU stadium waiting to watch the elite racers come through. After each of the 50,000 participants finished the run, they were funneled into the bleachers by way of volunteers handing out cloth lunch bags full of healthy post-run treats, water bottles, Pepsi, and if one was so inclined (I wasn’t), a can of Michelob Light. By the time we crossed the finish line, it was crowded and 90 degrees, and I was so hungry that I tore into this lunch bag with energy I didn’t even realize I still possessed. I was tired, covered all over with salt (from sweat evaporating so quickly in the dry air that it left me coated and gritty), and completely happy. I had run the race I wanted to run, and now I was being rewarded with one of my all-time favorite things – an impromptu picnic.

You see, I’m not too picky about the definition of the word picnic. This is why, I think, my husband saw this book and immediately thought of me. I love to take my food outside, to get away from the dining room table and into the fresh air. I love barbecuing (in my back yard, at the park, by a lake), and making cold noodle salads, and cutting up fruit to eat with my fingers, and I love finding those little spots where I can eat whatever I have with me and feel a breeze on my face. I don’t need a table-cloth or blanket. I don’t need a cooler filled with delicious food (although I’m not against it!). I don’t even need to have company in order to enjoy myself. All I want is a spot of dry land and a snack, and I’m feel better about life.

This book, along with its history about picnics (both urban and otherwise), is filled with recipes to try, and my guess is that I will I learn to make about eight of them really well. I’ll pick whatever’s easiest and keeps best at room temperature and be completely satisfied. That being said, I’m sure my family will think it’s a step up from what I usually pull together (a loaf of bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, chips, and somewhat inexplicably, Red Hot Tamales), and maybe I’ll be able to spread the picnicking love to my more skeptical friends and neighbors by tempting them with Artichoke and Sun-Dried Tomato Dip (p 97), and Sesame Potatoes (p 122), and Mushroom Medley (p 166).

I can share with them that I now have official documentation (in the form of this book, which looks like someone on Amazon possibly stole it from a library before selling it to us…) explaining that it is historically acceptable to bring booze on any outing where I require them to eat while sitting on rocks. Also, I can probably relent and occasionally allow us to find a picnic table so that we don’t have to deal with the bad knees and arthritis flare-ups that apparently begin plaguing people around age thirty. With this book in hand, I can probably even ease them into more adventurous picnicking scenarios (while hiking! on road trips! without wet wipes!), which makes me happy since, even though I can and have happily picnicked alone, it’s certainly more fun with a friend or three.

The best thing about The Urban Picnic is that it strives to demystify the experience (just in time for those long summer days) for people who live in cities or who don’t have a lot of free time to create an elaborate experience. The whole point of the picnic is to kick back and relax with some food; it shouldn’t be stressful or involve hours of prep work (unless you’re the kind of person who loves to cook, in which case, there are definitely some recipes in here for you – feel free to send samples of any dishes that take longer than thirty minutes to prepare, since that’s my hard limit for culinary endeavors that don’t involve chocolate).

There’s no one right way to dine al fresco (I especially don’t recommend googling the phrase “dine al fresco” with Image Search on because  the pictures are ridiculously daunting and gorgeous), so if you’re happy throwing some meat on the fire and cracking open a beer, great! If you prefer to slow roast vegetables in foil while chowing down on chips and salsa, that’s fine! If you want to grab a yogurt and muffin from Starbucks and take it to the park, that’s a picnic! All that really matters is that this meal is a moment you’re taking for you. Whatever you like to eat, and wherever you want to eat it, slow down and enjoy the freedom from the office, the winter, and using utensils. All too soon, school buses will be revving up their engines again, the barrage of autumn holidays will start, and it will be too cold and rainy to sit outside with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and simply be.

 

Here’s a link to the NPR interview with Burns and Caton about their book.

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