When was the last time you ate outside? Nope. In your car driving to work doesn’t count. When have you relaxed long enough to enjoy eating your daily bread in the great outdoors? I’m afraid picnicking is a disappearing art form in our country. With our leisure hours consumed by greater work responsibilities, when we flop down in the recliner at the end of a grueling day, dragging our food outside is one of the last things that we have an urge to do.
And there is the “kid” issue. It’s hard enough to get them to go out in public with you when you go to the mall, much less spend an afternoon lolling around on an old quilt under a spreading chestnut tree.
Some of my most vivid memories took place at state park concrete tables. On the way to Scottsboro, Alabama, to see Daddy’s people, we always stopped at Little River Canyon. There we passed an hour or so, competing with the yellow jackets for territory. We feasted on potted meat, summer tomato and pimento cheese sandwiches and the kids worked on orange Kool-Aid mustaches. After lunch was done we would wander down to the edge of the canyon and stare down as far as we could see. I used to imagine I could see buckskin-clad warriors picking their way along the canyon floor and I’d press myself against the ground above, pretending that the raiding party was looking for my family and our potted meat sandwiches.
When I was in college, down in Columbus, I made friends with two little old ladies who lived there. (Imagine the Baldwin sisters on “The Waltons” — the ones who made “papa’s secret recipe.”) Anyway, because they didn’t drive (didn’t know how), I’d occasionally take them on an adventure.
On one impossibly beautiful autumn day, I got itchy feet and called the old girls. I told them to dress warmly. We drove up to Roosevelt State Park beneath the bluest sky you can imagine. We stopped at the overlook at the top of the mountain. A single concrete table kept watch there. It was a bit nippy so we opened a big thermos of hot chocolate to warm us up. The leaves were already in full-blown splendor so we sat and watched as fall danced around us. I looked over at the ladies, wrapped against the cold in swaddling quilts. Their usually pale faces were ruddy in the wind. Their eyes were bright as they watched the golden leaves swirl around us and down into the valley below. We feasted on the beauty of that place, even more delicious than the sugar cookies that we ate.
You don’t have to drive to Roosevelt State Park to make a meal a splendid occasion. There are tons of picnic areas in our county that are easy to find.
John Tanner Park, about 20 minutes west of Carrollton on Highway 16, is a really nice family recreation area. They have lots of picnic tables tucked away in tall pines. There’s plenty of room for big families and lots of quiet locations to accommodate a dinner for two. During summer, consider bringing your bathing suit — they have a nice lake with a white sand beach. But wait to swim for at least 30 minutes after you eat. (Now I’m starting to sound like mama.)
McIntosh Park is another picnic gem, also about 20 minutes out of Carrollton. Take Alternate Highway 27 South into Whitesburg and turn right on Highway 5. Follow the signs from there. It has riverside picnic tables, easily accessible by car. McIntosh is a little wilder than Tanner, though, so after dinner, take a nature walk on the bridle trail and see what wildlife you can spot.
Can’t plan a grand adventure? No time to corral the offspring for an outdoor extravaganza? Then treat yourself. I won’t tell. If you have an hour during lunch, grab a bag from the Burger Whatzit and head over to the Lake Carroll parks. (You can run errands tomorrow.) Just park in the shade, facing the water, and watch a bevy of water bird species begging for french fries. There are always a couple of chatting moms with galloping kids in tow if you get tired of looking out across the tranquil water.
Don’t discount your own backyard. If you have a patio or porch, that makes for a great place to eat. If you don’t, spread an old quilt with some good food and see what happens. There’s something soothing about eating on the grass. Take a board game for a little brain stimulation. Maybe a deck of cards. But definitely leave behind your cell phone. The secret beauty of the art of picnic is the ability to leave the regular world behind, even if it is only for the length of a meal.
Gentry, a Carroll County resident, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian.