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Picnics and Cookouts

In the United States the term “picnic” refers to the act of bringing food to an outdoor area and enjoying it there at an unrushed pace. A picnic can involve a pair of lovers, or a large group in the cases of company, church or community picnics, but the term in a cultural sense usually brings up the image of a family outing involving outdoor eating and organized games. The family packs a picnic basket, spreads out a blanket if picnicking on the ground or a red checked tablecloth if using a picnic table. Since a simple basket is usually not large enough to satisfy the eating and drinking needs of a typical American family, large hampers for food and coolers for drinks are usually the rule. The term “cookout” and the term “barbecue” when used as a noun to connote an outdoor event are largely synonymous with the term picnic, though of course they indicate that hot food will be prepared. A form of picnicking called tailgating has become a popular, even elaborate, pastime at sporting events.

American towns, counties, states, highway departments, and the national and state park systems maintain picnic grounds. Some may be simple roadside stops with a few trash containers and picnic tables; the tables are made of wood or plastic and have built-in benches. Elaborate public picnic grounds may have dozens of tables, recycling bins, outdoor grills, restrooms, water fountains, vending machine stations, and public telephones. A picnic can of course be held in any outdoor area, even those with no facilities, subject to regulations allowing or prohibiting picnicking.

Family picnic food tends to be simple: sandwiches, hard-cooked eggs, and cold foods like pasta salad, coleslaw or potato salad if no cooking facilities are available, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and steaks if the family has access to cooking facilities. Of course any dish that can be easily transported without raising spoilage issues may turn up at a picnic. Food magazines, books and web sites engage in a never-ending process of promoting new picnic ideas, from vegetarian barbecues to creative napkin-folding techniques. Since grilling (both at and away from home) is extremely popular in the United States, the subject generates a seemingly endless stream of advice.

The world of the hiker, the camper, the climber, and the outdoor enthusiast overlaps with the picnic and cookout world to some extent. Public or private campgrounds usually offer some form of cooking facilities. Dedicated backpackers and campers may also carry their own specialized cooking and water purification devices. Because of their light weight, foods like beef jerky, energy and health bars, and the various nut, seed and dried fruit mixtures called “trail mixes” are popular with casual hikers; more serious outdoor enthusiasts may also purchase dehydrated meals in literally hundreds of varieties, from “Cajun Salmon Inferno for Two” to “Organic Couscous and Lentil Curry,” with copious choices—“Deep-Dish Peach Crumble,” “Mocha Mousse Pie,” “Hot Apple Cobbler”—from the dessert category.