by Shaun Costello
CONFESSION: A life-long aversion to, and hatred of, Picnics. I know, I know, the conjured image of a meal on a blanket in a meadow has great appeal, but in my experience, the reality of a picnic is disastrous. I have experienced this dreadful reality many times, mostly in New York’s Central Park. I realize that I will draw the wrath of picnic aficionados everywhere, but, in my view, the awful truth must be told.
The Fantasy: A wicker picnic basket filled to the brim with ripe cheeses, fresh fruit, French bread, and white wine; set down upon a plaid picnic blanket, in a sunny meadow, on a lovely Spring afternoon.
The Reality: No one owns a wicker picnic basket. They exist only in movies or books or Williams Sonoma catalogs. So you leave the market with paper bags filled with the necessary ingredients for the task at hand – the aforementioned cheese/fruit/bread/wine. You have not yet discovered that you have forgotten much-needed utensils like a cheese knife, plastic cups for the wine, and napkins – who remembers napkins during an epicurean adventure? And off you go, in search of exactly the right piece of pastoral paradise in which to experience this celebration of grassy gastronomica.
The walk is a little longer than you anticipated, carrying a bit more than you thought you might need, so a few stops become necessary to rearrange the baggage. You didn’t really have a plaid picnic blanket (does anyone?) and your down comforter didn’t seem appropriate, so you bring a sheet. The loss of a romantic element perhaps, but it would have to do. Now to find exactly the right spot. The park is a bit more crowded than you anticipated. Kids on bikes. Frisbee enthusiasts. Packs of dogs chasing tails. Screaming babies; it wasn’t like this in the movie I saw, and far from being a modern-day version of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Le Grande Jatte.
Wait, there’s a lovely spot under that elm tree. Upon arrival, we find a freshly deposited pile of dog poop exactly where we wanted to spread our blanket. Exhausted, we settle for not quite what we had hoped for, but hey, it’s outdoors, regardless of the noise coming from that not-too-distant boom box.
The sheet is spread upon the grass. We double over one side to hide that stain we forgot was there. We sit down on the sheet and begin to open the paper bag containing the ingredients for our al fresco fantasy. As we empty the bag, we are surprised by the amount of plastic packaging in which our meal is contained.
As the food is arranged on paper plates, a small mountain of plastic rises to a surprising height. It is now time to discover the forgotten cheese knife, plastic cups, and napkins; and Oh Shit, I forgot the corkscrew. We can always drink from the bottle, provided there is some way of opening it. I scan the horizon. There must be a neighboring pickicker who was smart enough to pack the right tools. I see a family on a nearby blanket, and there’s an open bottle of wine – an answered prayer.
I explain my plight to Mr. and Mrs. Corkscrew. I feign embarrassment, and grovel a bit. Mr. Corkscrew is unsympathetic. “How do I know you’ll bring it back?”, he asks. I point to my girlfriend, just fifty feet away, sitting on our sheet next to an unopened bottle of wine. Mrs. Corkscrew speaks up. “Ask him for a deposit, Morty”. A deposit? Morty Corkscrew agrees. “Yeah, twenty bucks and it’s yours. Temporarily that is, until you return it. Then you get your twenty back”. I hand him the twenty, and Morty Corkscrew hands me the implement. Commerce.
The transaction and task completed, and now back in possession of my twenty bucks, I thank Morty and Mrs. Corkscrew, and return to my girlfriend who is sitting on her sheet, to begin our gastronomic adventure.
The French bread is now a bit stale, but it seems to go well with the Brie cheese, which is spread on the bread with our fingers, having forgotten a cheese knife. Fingers that, after a bit of licking, are wiped on our sheet, since we have also forgotten napkins. Invariably, while making a descriptive hand gesture, one of us knocks over the wine bottle, creating a puddle in the middle of our sheet. While attempting to deal with the spilled wine, I notice that the mound of Brie cheese on the paper plate next to me is now covered with ants. For some reason my mind drifted off to a childhood fable of civilizations where people ate ants, and other insects. The growling sound in my rear brought me back to the present. I turned to come face to face with a large, mangy looking mongrel of a dog, who had been involved in tail chasing, until he decided to come over to our little slice of paradise to express his sudden and intense dislike of me and everything I stood for. He bared his teeth, in a low frequency growl, necessitating my stillness and silence. Then suddenly, he leaped forward snapping up our French bread, and took off across the field, his mouth carrying half a loaf.
Breadless and wineless, with sticky fingers and the tarnished reality of a fantasy undone, we pack up what’s left, and head home. On the way, we dump our picnic ingredients, and a fair amount of plastic into the nearest trash can. And, in an act of surrender for attempting a foolish fantasy, we dump the wine-soaked sheet as well.
I do not hesitate for a moment to proudly admit that my favorite meals have been consumed while sitting at a table, far from the mercy of Morty and Mrs. Corkscrew, and bread-thieving dogs.