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“The four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics,” Christopher Hitchens once wrote. He was dead wrong about the first three things,* but in the decade since he wrote those words, the First World menace of picnicking has only gotten worse.
Today, in 2016, the picnic — a social event that requires guests to sit on the ground, often in a park, to eat a meal — is out of control. The cultural forces of Foodstagram preening, Etsy twee, and “glamping” have converged to create a world where you can order a $1,800 caviar picnic on-demand from an internet start-up in Manhattan. (And another in Williamsburg.) Now, I do not begrudge any American her God-given right to fling fistfuls of money at whatever frivolity she wants. But I do think would-be picnickers should be informed: Picnics are actually terrible. It’s all the stress of a dinner party, but with the cruel volatility of nature. It’s a meal that takes place on a surface that dogs use as a toilet. Your crusty baguettes, your elegant tarts, your fattoush salad with za’atar — you love these things, you labored over them, and now they are one thin layer of gingham away from the pee-soaked turf of a New York City park. Why would you do that?
There was a time when picnics were aligned with humbler outdoor dining experiences, like barbecue, s’mores, and baseball-stadium hot dogs. I support these activities, and any other where the food and environment actively enhance one another. Outdoor eating is best when it is easy. It’s ideal when it takes advantage of things you can’t do inside, like build a campfire. But when outdoor eating occurs in spite of nature — when you are warring against the elements, shooing flies, battling ants, shifting from one buttc heek to the other to deal with suboptimal ergonomics, glancing away from the Great Dane taking a shit right at your eye level, lest you be reminded too viscerally of your own bestial nature — it’s downright unpleasant.
I once dated a man who liked to picnic. Inevitably, a man who likes to picnic will also be a man who likes expensive cheese, which does not fare well at a picnic. Soft cheeses turn to mush; hard cheeses perspire. I know a talented hostess who organized a mimosa picnic brunch, an elegant affair that included real plates and silverware. (The kind Saveur recommends.) The picnic, I’m told, was a brilliant success — which I assume required Dalloway-level planning skills and maybe a deal with the devil — but at the end, she still had to lug the equivalent of a small dishwasher full of dirty plates back to her apartment, where none of her guests were present to help with the washing. All the work of the dinner party, none of the free dish-washing services. I don’t understand how this could possibly be worth it.
Speaking of mimosas, one of the many humiliations of adult picnics is the ritual of disguising alcoholic beverages to avoid open-container citations. Once you’ve reached legal drinking age, hiding liquor from authority figures is simply undignified. I have heard that some people get a frisson of excitement from pouring beer into a Dixie cup and drinking it in a park, but I would prefer to pretend that those people don’t exist, because I don’t want to live in a world where the strategic deployment of a beer koozie could be categorized as a “thrill.”
There is a scene in Drinking Buddies, a movie about millennials who work at a craft brewery, where Anna Kendrick has a picnic with “an interesting, polite gentleman” who is dating the other woman at her two-couple weekend getaway. She was planning merely to hike with this gentleman, but because she had recently purchased one of those stemware-in-a-backpack picnic kits that stores like Anthropologie offer for aspirational impulse-shopping sprees, she ended up drinking wine underneath a tree, and then something terrible happens. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but suffice to say, bad things happen when you picnic. (And when you’re having doubts about marriage, and your boyfriend is flirting with his mega-babe female bestie. Probably more that part, actually, but I still think the picnic set was part of the problem.)
And so, in this age of stressful food situations, let’s stop having stressful picnics. They’re logistically difficult, ergonomically awkward, and far too attractive to dogs. Eat outdoors if you must, but do so reasonably: sit on a bench. We invented chairs and tables (and floorboards and roofs) for a reason. If you’re at a table (even a so-called “picnic table”) you’re not at a picnic, you’re just eating outside. “Picnic table” is not just a misnomer, it’s an oxymoron — like jumbo shrimp, old news, civil war, and good picnic.
* As for the first three items in Hitchens’s list, his incorrectness is likely owing to his being a bookish, mostly straight British man. Only women and the nouveau riche understand the frothy splendor that is Champagne. Only men with adult knowledge of the prostate can unlock the heights of anal pleasure. (Or so I’m told. And though I laud Hitchens’s bold memoirs of boyhood homoeroticism, a few boarding-school fondling sessions do not an enlightened sexual actor make.) And European lobsters are inferior to their robust American cousins.