My daughter Mindy came to town last night in time for a late dinner. And our first item of business was to decide whether to 'eat out'...or not. She was either way. But it was late, and I was tired, so I cast the deciding vote to go to Cracker Barrel, on the east edge of Mattoon. It was an "okay" meal, even though neither of us will probably remember anything about it two months from now.
But had this conversation taken place in the old days, the conundrum, "Do we eat
in or do we eat
out?" would have meant something entirely different: do we
stay in the house and eat...or do we take our food outside somewhere and have a picnic?
These days, 'eat out' means going to a restaurant. But when I was a kid it meant dining alfresco--taking in the weather along with your vittles. Of course, eating out (then and now) usually includes ants and flies...and the wind blowing your paper plate away. And if it gets really adventurous, one might even be sharing lunch with a pesky sea gull...a frisky raccoon...or a lumbering bear. Eating in never involves such excitement.
I'm thinking today about 'eating out' because I am just getting back from our annual church picnic. Once a year we hold Sunday worship in the local park, followed by a big picnic. This year we also had a big confabulation in the church office...on Tuesday...about whether we should call off the worship/picnic-in-the-park due to a menacing weather forecast. It predicted that we would be drenched in rain, starting Saturday night and lasting through Sunday.
I've lived in Mattoon four years now, and I have yet to hear an accurate 10-day forecast...or an accurate 10-hour forecast for that matter. And so, we decided to wait until Saturday afternoon before cancelling anything.
Sure enough, the rain got delayed and this morning dawned sunny and dry, with a pleasant 75-degree temperature. The picnic was a go. We gathered at the park's pavilion, serenaded the birds and squirrels with our songs, told Bible stories, and enjoyed fried chicken and all the potluck dishes afterward. The kids stampeded their way to the playgrounds, much to everyone's delight. It went into the annals of our church history as a
fine picnic...a good time was had by all.
When my own daughters were little, Alison once mused about how our family should have more picnics. And so, we set a goal to have 50 picnics before that year was out. Every year, come springtime, I keep thinking I should repeat that resolution. And I guess i
t's not too late to start...even at this late date...especially if I decide to eat my breakfast on the porch every time the morning is pleasant.
The word "picnic" comes from the French language, "piquenique," where it really doesn't mean anything. It is a compound word made up of "pique" (to peck) and a "nique" (a non-sense word which rhymes with the first syllable.) Its English counter-part, "picnic" didn't become common until after 1800. And when it was first used, it referred to a collective meal in which everyone brought something to share: today's definition of "potluck." The first picnics could be held indoors or out.
Nowadays, a picnic, theoretically, is a gentle repast enjoyed in a lovely pastoral setting. We think of a blanket spread in a meadow, a picnic basket lined with a red and white checkered cloth, filled with culinary delights. Centuries of painters have put such idyllic scenes to canvas. I've seen hundreds of masterpieces portraying such happiness, but not a one of them (that I could see) features a fly or mosquito.
But varmints be darned...at least in our imaginations. They are a small price to pay for the wondrous memories of 'eating out.' For me personally, 99% of the restaurant I've ever had lay in a corner of my memory, faded together into an indistinguishable dullness. But nearly
all of the picnic meals went into my memory's treasure-box, even if I can't immediately recall many of the details.
Not a single restaurant meal has ever compared with one of my first memories of "eating out": I was five years old, on a day trip through the Smokey Mountains with my mom and dad and Grandpa Smith. We pulled over at a wide spot off the side of the road, a place with a view. My mom unpacked some baloney sandwiches, and we munched away at them while looking down on the whole world. I never liked baloney, before or since, but that day it was holy communion.
Nor has any restaurant meal ever compared with one of those July picnics with Grandpa and Grandma Haworth. My brother Jim and I had birthdays three days apart. And they would take us to a city park, with a "lamb" birthday cake my grandmother always baked. And there were some cheap gifts, although price didn't matter when I was that age. And while no restaurant crews descended upon us to sing "Happy birthday," the whole outdoors celebrated the birth and continued existence of two little boys. The cast of our celebrations included trees, strangers picnicking nearby, lakes, grasses and flowers, squawking birds, playgrounds...
I'll close with a list of my top ten recommendations for eating out:
- Any overlook in the Smokey Mountains National Park.
- Lunch off the tailgate of your station wagon, surrounded by pine trees, in the Kettle Moraine Forest in Wisconsin.
- Eating bing cherries and crackers while relaxing outside Miller Park Zoo, in Bloomington, Illinois.
- Eating grilled hamburgers at Krape Park in Freeport, Illinois, when the leaves turn colors and fall...and then going out afterward and jumping in a huge pile of them.
- Buying some sandwiches from a street vendor in Pisa, Italy, then sitting down on the grass in front of the leaning tower and enjoying a slow paced meal.
- Backpacking to Hoffman Woods outside Polo, Illinois, camping the night with your friends in high school, and smelling the bacon sizzling for your breakfast.
- The ethnic food court at the state fair.
- A hot dog and nachos, while watching the Cubs win a ballgame in Wrigley field...even if they don't win it's still fine dining.
- A sack lunch on a mission trip in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, sitting on the ground outside a clinic under construction, sharing what's in the sack with the neighbor kids meandering up to you.
- Grilling BBQ chicken and eating it with friends and family on your own patio, porch, or balcony.
Give me another day and could easily expand this list into the hundreds. But why don't you do your own top ten list and let
me know. I'd like to imitate you a little...or remember something we have in common.
Happy eating out. Eating "out" feeds the soul as well as the body. And don't forget to give God thanks...at all times and in all places.