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Inviting Writing: The Power of a Picnic

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for...the next Inviting Writing theme! In celebration of summer, we're focusing on a simple pleasure that we hope everyone has experienced at least once: Picnics.The rules are simple: Tell us a true story that somehow relates to that theme (and food, of c...

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for...the next Inviting Writing theme! In celebration of summer, we're focusing on a simple pleasure that we hope everyone has experienced at least once: Picnics.

The rules are simple: Tell us a true story that somehow relates to that theme (and food, of course), and e-mail it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with "Inviting Writing: Picnics" in the subject line. We'll pick three of the best, lightly edit them and publish them over the next few Mondays here on the blog. For more guidance, please read this and peruse last month's stories about "fear and food."

I'll start the party by telling you about a particular picnic I remember...

A Picnic for the Fourth of...January?

Northerners know the peculiar illness well. It often infects a household after the holidays have come and gone, leaving a wake of wrapping paper, pine needles and chores. Faced with the grim promise of three or four more months of cold, snow and slush that will keep them largely cooped up indoors, folks can go a little crazy. It's called "cabin fever."

Courtesy of Flickr user Mykl Roventine

My mom must have had a bad case of it one midwinter afternoon when I was about thirteen years old. I don't remember the exact date, but I think it was sometime in January. My friend Kristen had come over, and we were hanging out upstairs in my room, when my mother called up to us.

"Find some shorts and T-shirts to put on, and come downstairs, girls!" she hollered in her I'm-up-to-something-fun tone of voice.

We rolled our eyes, being teenagers, but were curious enough to play along. I retrieved some cut-off jean shorts and T-shirts from deep in the dresser drawers, and we even found some flip-flops and sunhats in the closet. (I'm embarrassed to remember this, but I think we also tucked our oversized shirts into those glittery plastic T-shirt slides. Hey, it was the early '90s.)

In the living room, we discovered a fire roaring in the potbelly stove. My mother had spread a checkered cloth over the carpet in front of it, and laid out a full-fledged picnic, complete with the basket, paper plates and plastic cups, and she'd festooned the room with small American flags and other red, white and blue decorations.

"It's the Fourth of July!" she declared. "And it's a hot one, isn't it?"

The funny thing is, I don't remember what we actually ate. Probably hot dogs or hamburgers that my mom surreptitiously prepared in the kitchen, and some grapes or other out-of-season fresh fruit she'd splurged on at the supermarket. I think there were cans of soda, chips and ice cream sandwiches.

But the real joy was the picnic itself, an act of defiance in the face of winter. We giggled as we complained about our "sunburns," pretended to find ants in the carpet, and blasted cassette tapes from our boom box. It reminded me of other outdoor meals my mother had orchestrated through the years, from fried eggs cooked on campstoves to elaborate birthday-party picnics at the beach by Lake Champlain. Just the word "picnic" sounded playful and bright.

From our ground-level seats, we couldn't see any snow outside the windows. Maybe it really was summer?

I think that's when my father walked in from shoveling the driveway, stamping his boots and shaking his gloves and hat to dry them.

"Cabin fever, eh?" he remarked, chuckling.

(Interestingly, according to food historian Kathryn McGowan's blog, the first picnics were held indoors. Guess my mom's idea wasn't so crazy after all!)
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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