Monday, July 9, 2012

The Etiquette of the Tailgate Picnic

‘Picnics are for ants and free-range children’ is a saying used by many a bah-humbug picnic invitee. Perhaps this rings true for so many because successful picnics are no mean feat! Weather dependent events and activities have a certain built-in fear factor that can give even the eternal optimist pangs of angst. Let’s face it; a picnic in the rain simply is no picnic at all.

Aside from factors outside of one’s control, there are some guidelines I have garnered over the years that can be helpful when planning a picnic, specifically a tailgate picnic. Last week, I spent a sun-filled afternoon at a racecourse where there was actually a tailgate picnic competition. This was part of an afternoon filled with racing and socializing designed to raise funds for land conservation. The competition has been in place for many years and has grown into quite a successful as well as creative and fun event.

When one thinks of tailgate picnics, one’s mind generally focuses on football games when cool autumn days lend themselves well to beer and BBQ’s set up in parking lots or sidelines. Whatever the venue, making a bit of an effort adds to the overall fun and festive atmosphere of a very hands-on activity.

A clean car with a spotlessly clean trunk is a good place to begin. A lot of men prefer their “old relics” to many of their own friends and take immaculate care of them. These are ideal for tailgates as they are clean, if not cleaner than many a very well kept kitchen. Car equipment i.e. oil cans, tire jacks and assorted other car accouterment need to be carefully and invisibly stowed for the day.

If you are flying solo and not coordinating your efforts with other like-minded souls, plan your menu to include a bit more food than what you yourselves require, as you will have both old and new friends who will pop round to see what you’ve got and you will no doubt want to share your bounty with them.

Essentials for success are large trash bags, plenty of ice, non-breakable cups, plates and serving dishes, and disposable cutlery (if any at all) or at least cheap cutlery, which won’t cause distress as it’s cheerily pitched into the trash bin with paper plates and plastic cups. I remember foolishly deciding to bring silver forks to a picnic once to celebrate a birthday. I was disheartened to discover a fork had gone missing as I was washing up at home. Undoubtedly it had been inadvertently tossed. As I have said before, avoid the avoidable!

Food is obviously the main attraction to any good picnic, perhaps only playing second fiddle to one’s attire. And like one’s attire, the menu should be carefully planned and be sensible, yet fun. By this I mean (for the food), to avoid mayonnaise and seafood. There may other ‘danger’ foods, but these top the list. Exposure to the hot sun, even for a relatively short amount of time (less than an hour) can turn a lovely dish into a nasty science experiment and wreak havoc with your meal, except of course for the ants.  

This is not to say that shrimp cocktail and crab claws are out of the question for a picnic; they just need to be iced and consumed first, being certain that the shells and tails are put in the trash as quickly as possible. I plan picnic menus incorporating as much finger food as possible. This might logically include fried chicken and sandwiches. If a grill is part of the mix, an ice-filled Styrofoam chest or cooler will keep the meats cold until grilling begins. Invariably potato salad or mixed greens come to mind. If these are on your menu, opt for the German style of potato salad as it contains no mayonnaise; and do not dress the greens until the last minute. No one wants limp lettuce. Using tomatoes in sandwiches is also a surefire way to get them soggy, so serve tomato slices on a separate plate. Another solution is to assemble the sandwiches on the spot, and voila, problem solved!

At the end of the picnic be sure to collect all of your trash and any that may have blown into your space. Leaving the area cleaner than when you arrived is the best practice and a great way to teach children how to be helpful, and civic minded. Cleaning up with you as part of the picnic incorporates them into another essential part of picnicking. If everyone does his or her bit to clean up, the cycle is complete. And don’t worry about the ants. We always leave a few scraps for them. After all, picnics are for ants!