Guide to Summer: There's Nothing Like Dining Alfresco

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Guide to Summer: There's Nothing Like Dining Alfresco

Don't fight the urge to be social--we're genetically programmed to picnic
By Pete Nelson

Most of my favorite outdoor parties have been interrupted by visits from the police, but these were mainly when I was in high school and evoke memories of trying to drink beer from kegs that had rolled down hills and trying to come up with enough money to bail our ride home out of jail. Today, somewhat wizened and sadly wiser, my alfresco fetes still have the same carefree spirit--they're just a little less likely to end with screeching sirens. So, for those whose carefully planned events haven't come off as hoped, I offer some advice on site, refreshment, and entertainment selection guaranteed to turn this summer's celebration into a happening.

When it comes to picnic sites, I remain a nemophilist. I prefer a leafy canopy overhead and moving water nearby. The next best place is beside a backyard garden, preferably one from which fresh herbs or vegetables can be harvested. Public picnic areas do have a kind of charm, but some also have so many rules and restrictions that you practically have to file an environmental impact statement before you can so much as flame a marshmallow. In the interest of pest control, pick a windy place and avoid swamps or dairy farms, which breed flies. For deerflies, you'll want a Parker .410 side-by-side shotgun loaded with Winchester AA number-nine shot. What you don't want is:

"The raisins in the fruit salad are delicious."

"I didn't put any raisins in the fruit salad."

Food & Beverages
For a balanced meal, invite equal numbers of men and women, because women bring salads and desserts to picnics, whereas men only bring meat--something about eating outdoors recapitulating the Paleolithic division of labor whereby women gather the side dishes while men hunt down and kill the entrées.

The meal that quickens the pulse (and thickens the arteries) of a true carnivore is the pig roast. You can rent pig roasters for $50-$75, while a full-size 160- to 180-pound pig feeds 100 people, costs about $2 a pound, and takes eight to ten hours. I once attended a pig roast on an Iowa farm where the porcine friends and family of the main course looked on through a barbed-wire fence not 30 feet away, the expression on their faces a combination of envy and dismay. I felt like I was trapped in a Gary Larson cartoon but took solace in knowing that the pigs would do the same to me but for the lack of opposable thumbs and ready cash.

If a pig roast is too much of a bother, dig a coal pit and make it BYOM. Corn on the cob should be cooked in the husk. Sponsor a barbecue sauce competition and give first prize to whichever guy's splattered apron makes him most resemble a Mafia hit victim. For authenticity, beer and pop should be stored either in old tin livestock water troughs or in the ice-filled back of a pickup truck.

Everyone should know (and from time to time feed) a musician, if for no better reason than to invite him or her to play at picnics. Though there are always going to be greasy-necked bug-sucking goobers who think an idyllic outdoor setting is the perfect place to set up a boom box and crank the latest Green Day album until all the birds and woodland creatures lie vomiting on the ground, playing canned music at a picnic is no more appropriate than speaking with correct grammar at a stock-car race. Besides, you can easily get musicians to come to your party, because they'll do virtually anything for free food and a chance to have everyone think they're cool.

Invite, in no particular order, a Dobro player, a banjo player, and an accordionist. Dobros, or resonator guitars, were designed in the twenties to be loud enough to play with big-band orchestras and were useful for about ten years, until electronic amplifiers were invented, after which Dobros were just loud. Banjos also carry over the roar of campfires and make interesting blue-and-green flames when tossed into them. Accordions melt rather nastily in a campfire, but they do keep wolves away--in recorded history, at any rate, no accordion player has ever been ripped apart by wolves, which some argue is proof that there is no God.

Fun & Games
One good reason to have your party near water is to allow for swimming, fishing, and other water sports. Softball at picnics is rarely any fun, because it's too disorganized and people feel free to head for the rest rooms when it's their turn to bat. The seven best picnic sporting events, in ascending order, are:

7. Deep-woods golf. Pitch your shots over roots, under branches, into streams, and so on--in other words, the kind of golf most of us play on regulation courses.

6. Lawn darts. This sport was clearly invented by nine-year-old boys, but it's certainly a cut above knife-throwing. Be careful, though, or you'll exocculate yourself.

5. Bowling. Not English lawn bowling--use regulation balls and water-filled, quart-size soda bottles for pins. You can't put an eye out playing this game, though you can crush a skull.

4. Volleyball. Play until one side scores 21 points or until the first woman gets mad at a man for hogging the ball.

3. Bocce. First you throw out a little ball, and then you try to make a bigger ball land near it. It doesn't sound like much, but it's been amusing elderly Europeans for hundreds of years, perhaps because it's the only sport you can play with a glass of wine in one hand.

2. Croquet. A perfectly paced sport for a summer evening. Grandparents and grandchildren are evenly matched, and you get to feel like a character in an Edith Wharton novel to boot.

1. Fire gazing. After the coals have died down, throw on some scrap lumber, add charcoal starter and maybe a banjo, and kick back. It's no accident that, since the beginning of time, clans and tribes have finished their celebrations with a ritual fire. Grab a log to sit on, put your arms around your sweet one, and get Zoroastrian.

Pete Nelson, a devoted bacchanalian and longtime contributor to Outside, is the author of Marry Like a Man: An Essential Guide for Bridegrooms (Plume).

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