Nothing like a picnic

It is summertime and the picnic season is in full swing. That means hot dogs in my family. Lots of hot dogs. I can’t fathom why. Seeing a hot dog on my dinner plate pretty much any other season of the year would indicate to me that better and more elaborate dinner plans have gone terribly awry. But during these few magical weeks of sunshine we practically purchase them in bulk along with the requisite potato salad, baked beans, chips, deviled eggs, jello, and s’mores fixins. (Note: I sincerely apologize to any registered dieticians who read this paragraph and passed out.)

Menu choices aside, there is nothing quite as inviting to me as sitting around a campfire with loved ones. Thoughtful moments find me looking around the circle and rejoicing for the family and friends with whom God has blessed me. I recall the picnics of long ago and the many regular guests who have passed on or are now separated by great distance. Sometimes I even ruminate about how long ancestors, their names lost to time, gathered around a fire in similar fashion: eating, laughing, and telling stories. Holy ground.

My baser moments find me swatting mosquitos and just wondering when we are going to eat. Our family has a tradition, and a pretty ill-conceived one at that: we don’t eat until 2 pm on picnic days. No one remembers the scoundrel who first set picnic times for two hours after all other civilized people eat lunch. The matriarchs of the family-my mother and my Aunt Barb-say our family picnics have been this way as long as they can remember.

I am not an unreasonable person. I will grant that this tradition, inconvenient as it is, makes perfect sense on one day of the year: Independence Day. It gives everyone time to get home from the parade, collect their picnic contributions, and get to the campfire. That said, I simply cannot find any other logic in this schedule any other time of the year. And frankly, neither can my growling stomach.

Now you may be reading this and wonder to yourself, “Surely Ian could just eat a snack?” While that is a great idea in theory, in practice it is an abysmal failure. For instance, any attempt to crack open a bag of chips is greeted by a chorus of “Hey, that’s for the picnic!” Never mind that we always overestimate the amount of food by at least triple the people that actually show up and that the resulting leftovers can easily feed a small army for a week. Move my hand in the vicinity of the chips before 2pm and suddenly everyone turns into the Food Police!

The campfire was my dad’s domain for over 45 years. The mantle was passed on to my sister after his reign ended. Her vision deteriorated over the years, and with great reluctance abdicated the grill onto me. Something happened to me the moment I held that spatula in my hand. Drunk with power I vowed to end the ridiculous 2pm picnic time tradition. I sent out a decree to all guests that from the next picnic onward we were dining at noon. I got a head count of my subjects and their preference for a hot dog or hamburger ahead of time. The great day finally arrived when I would lead my family and friends boldly into the future. The picnic table was set and the appropriate portions of meat were laid upon it by noon sharp.

Pretty much everyone else showed up to the picnic about two hours later. I ended up having to refrigerate the hot dogs and burgers and then reheated them in the microwave later, to the culinary delight of absolutely no one. They say you can’t change tradition, but oh how I tried!

Ian Eastman, M.A., promotes the health and well-being of families at Family Services of Warren County, a charitable agency that helps people through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Support this charitable work by participating in the Kwik Fill Kinzua Classic, a challenging bicycle race in the scenic Kinzua area on August 11. For more information go to www.kinzuaclassic.com.