Saturday, August 21, 2021

Rhys on Picnics

 RHYS BOWEN: Having discussed food yesterday has made me think about the meals I love the most. One of those is a good picnic. And I realize as I write this that I have not had one picnic all summer.

It comes from being stuck at home with Mr. 'I-Hate-Picnics". I went to Australia in my early twenties, expecting to date rugged sheep farmers. Instead I met and married an upper-class Englishman who has to have a side plate and a napkin at a picnic. He doesn't like bugs, hates bees, doesn't want sand in his sandwich. Therefore--no picnics.

Which is a shame as I love them! When I think back over my favorite meals in my life, two spring to mind. One was when I was working for the BBC in London. Two friends and I found we had the same free day (which didn't happen often as we were all on shift work in the drama department--many things going out live in those days). So we went to Selfridges food court and bought a cold chicken, crispy fresh bread, cheeses, grapes and a bottle of chilled wine. Then we took the tube to Kew and rented a boat. We rowed up the Thames until we found a shaded spot under a willow tree with a grassy bank beside it. There we tied up and feasted. It was magical, like being transported back in time.

One of my favorite scenes in a book is the picnic in Wind in the Willows. It makes me drool every time! And sigh with a longing for a world that doesn't exist any more.

My very favorite picnic was for my mother's seventy-fifth birthday in Australia. She said she didn't want a restaurant meal. She wanted a picnic. And so we chose a spot on the shore, above the beach. Blue sea below us, gum trees swaying over us. My brother and his wife's family provided the feast: oysters, giant shrimp, lobster, crab, cheese platter, several salads, fruit plate. And of course champagne. So much of everything that we could keep taking another bite all afternoon, in between swims and sleeps.

Now THAT was a picnic. In my childhood picnics were not so grand but were something we did often. We'd drive out into the country, find a pretty meadow and my dad would spread a rug. We'd sit and eat sandwiches: cheese and pickle was a favorite, also salmon spread and cucumber, egg and cress, ham and mustard. My parents always brought a thermos of tea and there was plenty of fruit from our orchard. You'd think, having a very large garden, that we could do this at home, but somehow it was more exciting in someone else's field.

If I do manage a picnic these days it's usually fresh baguette and cheeses, various olives and a crisp white wine.  I hope to manage at least one before the summer is over.

So let's hear it from you: what is your favorite picnic item? The best place you've ever had a picnic?



63 comments:

  1. I think the best thing about picnics is having them with children . . . it doesn't really matter what you have to eat because the best part is having fun with the Little Ones . . . .

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  2. I haven't been on a picnic in ages. In one of my favorite picture books, Beach Day, the entire family, including baby and grandma go to the beach for the day. The food they take with them is scrumptious! Being at the beach always makes me hungry and even looking at that book makes me want some fried chicken and potato salad.

    Probably the most memorable picnic when I was just a kid was when we were going to Cooperstown and spied a lovely spot under an apple tree. We pulled over and enjoyed out lunch. We had baked ham and maybe potato salad and chocolate macaroons my mother had made. I'm not sure just when we discovered we were on the edge of a golf course but no one really minded.

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    1. You didn’t get a golf ball in your potato salad?

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  3. Rhys, I love that scene in the Wind in the Willows--they knew how do it! And the description of your John is hysterical, with the side plate and napkin. I'm thinking it had to be cloth, not paper?

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    1. Naturally! And he’s probably wearing an ascot too!

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  4. Rhys, you definitely need to grab a couple of friends and head out to a beach or a meadow - leave Mr. Grumpy at home with his napkin and side plate!

    I love picnics, but I don't sit on the ground easily any more, so I'm bringing my low beach chair. To eat - yes, baguettes, cheese, pickles, fruit, and wine. Or cold chicken wingettes, no-mayo potato salad, my no-lettuce Greek salad with garden cherry tomatoes, cukes, and Kalamata olives. And more wine, of course!

    After my divorce and when sons were going off to college, we had a series of annual end-of-day beach picnics with them and family friends. Swimming, bocce, eating, even Scrabble one year. Epic.

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  5. Oh, I love picnics! My favourite was when I first moved away from home and I was alone and renting a small apartment in the home of a wonderful Greek family. We lived near Lake Ontario and every Sunday they went on a picnic and took me along. Fried chicken, salad with kalamata olives which seemed so exotic to me! Swimming and races and baseball with other Greek families who were doing the same thing. I always brought potato salad and egg salad sandwiches and they thought THAT was exotic!

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    1. Greeks know how to eat and enjoy life. I’ve also had wonderful al fresco meals in Italy

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  6. Trying to remember the last time I went on a picnic -- eons ago. I seem to recall one with fried chicken and chocolate cake, but that would have been when I was much younger and energetic. These days the closest I might come is a hot dog on the patio, with a real table and a real chair.

    Oh the other hand, when we take a driving trip, I pack all sorts of picnicky sorts of food because we dislike eating at fast food places enroute. One of our favorites is shrimp, easy to eat in the car and so decadent compared to a Big Mac. Grapes, cheese and crackers, nuts, cherry tomatoes, all sorts of finger foods. And cookies, because without dessert, life is meaningless.

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    1. I pack food when we are on trips but John likes to eat it as we drive in the car. Grrrr

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  7. My picnic with the kids was always held on a hot august day after the Williamstown Fair and before the rush for school. We would spontaneously decide that today was the day, and make one egg sandwich each, 2 Oreo cookies each and a can of Coke each. It was all packed into a last-year’s school backpack with a couple of books. Together with the two old English Sheepdogs we would walk down the hill (about 1000 feet in total) to a world of magic.
    We crossed over an old rickety bridge, and down through the prickly scrub to the river, where we would pop the Coke in the water to keep it cool, while we explored the river. Then together with the mosquitoes we would take out our individual lunches and either read a book or splash in the water. After clean up, there was usually an exploration of the water’s edge further down the river, looking for frogs with more splashing and crossings. There was an old spillway where sticks were tossed for the dogs, and kids slipped off the mossy edge into the drink. Time came to go home, but there was always enough time for a game of pooh-sticks on the bridge before the walk up the hill. It was always a magical, memorable day.
    This year my youngest (30) found a river like this in BC. He sent a note home, that all he wanted was an egg sandwich, 2 Oreo cookies and a can of Coke. I guess we did something right!

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    1. Making memories is what parenting is about. You did a great job, Margo.

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  8. Poor John, if only he could relax. LOL Please tell him I like to have my napkin at hand, too. Cloth, if possible.

    We were given a wonderful picnic basket for a wedding gift in 1982. It's a fairly big wooden/slat hamper, and included a set of plastic plates, cups, and cutlery. I had such high hopes for taking it to concerts and plays in the park, packed with goodies and wine.

    Ha, to the ha. In nearly 40 years it has not been used three times. Steve only had the use of one ear, so could never hear live performances, and could never enjoy them. If they were loud, that was worse, because he's always tried to protect the hearing he does have. We just never got in the habit of it.

    However, I just realized that we have had many picnics in Africa, between our two trips, they were just referred to as "bush" meals. Bush breakfast with a panorama of the valley: crisp bacon, granola in glass jars, pancakes, tree tomato jam, and delicious coffee, all spread out on a portable table covered in a colorful plaid Maasai shuka. Bush lunch: tiny bananas, hard boiled egg, little sandwiches, and always a cookie or some other sweet, packed by the chef in matching green tiffins. Bush sundowners: up on a hill overlooking the vast plain, with our beverages of choice (gin and tonic made with limoncello is divine), and snacks, including tiny bruschetta or fried coconut rind. Yum. Bush dinner: under the trees and stars, lit by lanterns or torches. Lovely meals of all descriptions, often accompanied by a dance, or a song, or a charming talk on the Maasai version of the heavenly bodies overhead.

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    1. What a lovely picture you paint, Karen! I love those tiny African bananas.

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    2. Thanks Karen, I had not thought of the bush meals I had on Safari. So delicious and beautifully served. How delightful it is to be spoilt.

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    3. Karen, I’m so glad you got to do this! What lovely memories

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    4. Karen, you safari picnics sound divine. And I envy you the picnic basket. I've always wanted one.

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    5. I should send it to you, Debs. At least it would get used!

      Yes, to spoilt! And yes, to lovely memories, and to way more kinds of bananas than the Cavendish we get here.

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    6. Oh! That sounds absolutely amazing!

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    7. Now those sound like picnics I could love!

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    8. I guess I should put that on my bucket list, Karen. Everything about your trip sounds lovely!

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  9. I just remembered my mother’s idea of a picnic. We would be travelling for 8 hrs from Cape Breton to PEI, and would stop for lunch along the way at a picnic table if we could find one (this is before the ubiquitous fast food places were available), otherwise the side of the road sufficed. She always packed a cold chicken, some boiled eggs and salt and pepper sandwiches – yup, you read that right. Two slices of bread, heavily buttered and sprinkled with salt and pepper. (I am thinking of self-publishing the recipe, but I doubt it will get many hits!)
    Her rational was if she buttered and salt and peppered the bread that we would open it up and put in the meat or egg. I always ate the ‘sandwich’, and then enjoyed the meat or eggs by themselves.
    However, in our family, she remained famous for her ‘salt and pepper’ sandwiches.

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    1. Margo, I think your mum was a genius. What a great idea and so good with a hard boiled egg.

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    2. I think that sounds absolutely delicious!

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  10. Picnics, what a host of memories there. Wind in the Willows may have set that picnic standard FR so many of us as children. One notable meal stands out. My father took us to Scotland for a holiday. I think I was in my early teens with my sister and bro much younger than me. We were on the rather windy and cold beach below Dunnotter Castle when my father produced a tin of sausages, made and lit a small fire, opened the tin and cooked the sausages for us. We were enchanted by this. It was not usual behavior, and they tasted so good. But so many memories once I arrived in the USA. Any summer concert, play or other outdoor event was usually accompanied by a meal. I would make cold boned and stuffed chicken, smoked trout pate, crudités cheeses, fruit, good bread and of course something to drink. There are lots of rules here about alcohol in public parks etc. so a thermos of homemade sangria came too along with, yes cloth napkins, I am in agreement with your husband, Rhys. But for me any meal eaten outdoors has the feel of a picnic to me and I cook in that vein. When the grandboys were small I would load the food into the electric wheelbarrow and down the tiny slope to our lake beach we would go taking grilled cheese and Cheerios, watermelon and bananas. Now a lobster roll from a food truck eaten at the ubiquitous picnic table is a treat and the Maine view is always rewarding.

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    1. Celia, you can come and cater my picnic any time! Smoked trout pâté ? Sound divine. And my dad always took a small spirit stove on outings too

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    2. Oh, I love smoked trout pate! I had forgotten about that!

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    3. I'm pretty sure I shared the recipe way back, but happy to do it again. Julia might let me on in her next round, then she can video my boning skills!

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  11. Two memories popped into my mind as I read your post. The first was from high school. Some of my friends wanted to fix me up with a boy who was painfully shy, but already had his driver's license and a car, so if they could get him a girlfriend, they had a means to double-date. They picked me because I was so gregarious they figured I could counterbalance his shyness. He dutifully asked me out, but for a night I genuinely couldn't make it. I counteroffered a picnic on a different night. On the appointed night I packed us a nice picnic and we went out and ate it and got acquainted in a setting where he had literally no alternative but to talk with me. We didn't end up together forever or anything quite that romantic, but we did go steady for more than a year.

    My other picnic memories are much more recent, and less authentically a picnic, I suppose. The Columbus Symphony does a Picnic with the Pops series every summer, and we love to go to that with a group of other couples. We each bring one item to share -- appetizers or simple salads or desserts -- and our own bottle of wine. We did this for years in the lawn-seating area, but a few years ago decided to upgrade to the area with tables, as none of us are enjoying sitting on the ground or toting in lawn chairs as much as we used to. We haven't done it for two years now, of course, but it is one of the things I can hardly wait to resume when we get our lives back!

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  12. I'm with you, Rhys, nothing like a picnic in the Great Out-of-Doors!

    We've had tons of them. Irwin and I always took vacations where hiking was one of the main activities, even when the kids were little but also as empty nesters. (Our kids were great hikers, from the very beginning!) The best memories are hiking and bringing a backpack full of sandwiches, fruit, cut veggies and goodies, including homemade cookies & homemade "gorp." (Gorp= nuts, seeds, M&M's, chocolate chips, granola, etc.) Nothing like sitting on a craggy spot staring out from a mountain peak while you munch or sitting secluded, by a bubbling stream while you lunch. Good memories. And we've done the picnic at a concert, too, with wine and cloth napkins, but I'll take the ones with a view that you had to climb to achieve any day.

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  13. My favorite picnics have been traveling abroad - stopping for a freshly baked bread, local cheese, pate or smoked ham or other local specialty, artichoke or some other salad, a peach or plumb or box of berries, water. Then finding a park bench to sit on (I can ground-sit... what I can no longer do graceful is ground-get-up.) The finding and gathering is as much fun as the eating. There's very little comparable in the States.

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    1. Hallie, the "ground-get-up" made me laugh. Ruefully.

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    2. Oh yes, Hallie. I remember Brie and peaches from a roadside stand in France!

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  14. My most memorable picnic was freshman year of college. We were theater majors, so many late nights. There was a little Mexican food stand that was open 24hours and did greasy breakfast burritos only after midnight. We’d get out of rehearsal about 11, head over there in several cars and get our burritos. No place to sit except at the cemetery across the street, so we’d walk over there and borrow a patch of well-manicured lawn. At one of these picnics a helicopter flew low over the cemetery shining a light... we thought nothing about it until a few minutes later when the police came screaming up and surrounded us. They were searching for a runaway 13 year old & thought she might be one of us. We were given a stern lecture about trespassing and told to go home.... Our midnight picnics resumed a few weeks later, just farther off the road where we weren't visible to a passing patrol car...

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  15. BTW gang, we flooded in an early morning rainstorm on Thursday and have been dealing with the clean-up since then. We were without a/c for over a week, our big wall unit having died just as the heatwave began a week ago Wednesday. My house is totally upside down right now with everything moved away from where it belongs to accommodate the clean-up and the installation of the new unit. (You never know how much stuff you have until it's necessary to move it somewhere else!) Well, sorry Rhys, I know it's off topic. But I'm just looking for some love here because it will lift my spirits as Hurricane Henri barrels towards landfall in Connecticut tomorrow morning. (sigh)

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    1. Oh, Judy, that's awful!! We had to replace our big downstairs AC last year but it didn't require moving stuff, just no AC for a few days in August (and $$$$). Sending you big hugs and sympathy!

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    2. Hang in there, Judy! Here's hoping Hurricane Henri doesn't add to your misery. You know if we were closer, we'd all be there pitching in.

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    3. Judy, my family and out of town friends are constantly texting me to advise me to leave home and go somewhere “safe”. They don’t seem to understand that I have nowhere to go, as most of Connecticut is expected to be hit by the storm! I’m praying for Henri to go somewhere else. I’m not physically able to do any sort of cleaning up if my basement gets flooded. They mean well but they’re really making me nervous now! I hope you don’t get any additional damage. You need a vacation! Summer has not been good to you this year!

      DebRo

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    4. Oh, I am so sorry to hear this! That is terrible… And I’m hoping it will be fixed and a memory in no time…

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    5. I'm so sorry you're going through this mess, Judy. What a hassle, as well as being uncomfortable and inconvenient.

      Fingers crossed for safe passage of Henri to your area and Deb Ro's!

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    6. Thanks everyone! Your support is just what I need (which is why I
      shamelessly spilled) to get my second wind and rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic before the storm hits. Sending you all big hugs!

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    7. Ah Judy, that is too bad about the flooding, AC, and assorted mess. And now of course, Henri. Sitting here in New Haven, I'm right in the path along with you and Deb Ro--sending good thoughts to you folks!

      I am a picnic fan myself, especially of the breakfast picnic: coffee in a thermos, a bottle of juice, some cut fruit, and a couple of muffins or scones. Take to beach. Spread out a blanket and enjoy (always with cloth napkins)!

      Well, I'm off to bring in the outdoor furniture and make more ice!

      -Melanie

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    8. Thanks Rhys and Melanie. Melanie, good-luck. I know that New Haven is a target right now and we are just 40 miles away. I think I'll make some more ice, too.

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  16. Lovely post, Rhys! My parents loved road trips, and in those far-off days of yore before fast food joints, we always stopped at roadside parks for picnics. Vienna sausages and sharp Kraft cheddar on Triscuits, pickles, hardboiled eggs, bananas. Oh, and sometimes the little tins of sardines. But my favorite picnic memories are traveling by train with them in Europe. One year we had Eurail passes and went all through France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. We bought baguettes and cheese and garlicy sausages and wine for feasts on the train. Such fun.

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  17. Oh, Rhys, what lovely images. I'm more of a BBQ than a picnic gal, except when, like Debs, I was traveling through Europe. I remember eating amazing cheese and bread and green peppers with friends next to a fountain in Florence, and dining on pan bagnat and lemon ice on a straw mat on a rocky beach in Nice.

    I've always admired the full blown English picnic like you might see at Wimbledon, but since my mid-twenties, I've been the person responsible for the food prep, and If I'm cooking/baking/assembling, I don't want to be packing and toting as well. Maybe the next time I'm in the UK, I'll order a hamper from F&M and really go to town (or to the country!)

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    1. Julia, I'll go in with you on the hamper. And so many London parks in which to picnic!

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    2. I e always dreamed of a picnic hsmper from Fortnums

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  18. I love reading this post, Rhys, you are absolutely wonderful. But as for picnics, I fear I am with John. I am so sad to say. I see bugs, and uncomfortable seating, and dirt, and bees, and grit and trash and… Can we just go inside?
    We do love getting lawn chairs and sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood, in Lenox Massachusetts, before the symphony plays outside. People bring tables and table cloths, and candles and flowers, and it is a patchwork quilt of blankets and feasts. That is fabulous, I have to admit.

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    1. Hank,

      When I had a picnic in England, we never encountered bugs. No idea why.

      Diana

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  19. Lunch packed up in a weekday and taken to the park on summer days. It was the three Dale kids, the two Van Aalst kids with our moms. Lunch at a picnic table, under a tree. Shared sandwiches. Mom cut her sandwiches cross ways and Tante Nancy diagonally. For some reason it made a "big" difference to Diana and me which way our moms cut out sandwiches, we just had to share a half with each other. And I haven't thought about those sandwiches in years. :)

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  20. RHYS,

    Picnics are wonderful! On my first trip to England with my Mom(my Mom visited England once years before I was born), we would buy sandwiches like Tuna fish and dill at Boots Chemist shop and we would have picnics either in a public garden or near the River in Cambridge. There were also pubs near the river and there were picnic tables outside pubs. We would have picnics outside the pubs far away from the cigarette smoking.

    Sand in sandwiches?? it sounds like John had a bad experience having a picnic at the beach?

    Diana

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  21. Our most enjoyable picnics have been impromptu while we were traveling. Visiting wineries and buying a bottle and a cheese plate to eat on the grounds. Buying crackers, cheese, Twinkies, etc to eat at a state park. We've had picnic baskets in the past, classic wicker, backpack style, you name it. And they've always turned out to be too awkward to deal with if you're going to walk very far. Give me a couple of tote bags or grocery bags and we're good!

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    1. When I was in high school my family moved to New Orleans. I met my best friend there. She and I would ride the bus downtown and walk to the French Quarter. We'd buy half a muffaletta at Central Grocery, then go down the block to MacKenzies bakery and buy treats and a drink. We'd take it all to Jackson Square and have our picnic. Sweet memories.

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  22. John, Hank, and I will wave to the rest of you from inside, or possibly a screened-in porch, as you swat the crawling and flying bugs. We will be sitting on our comfy cushions as you wiggle around trying to find a spot where something isn’t jabbing you in the butt. And, we will dab our mouths with cloth napkins and pass each other a side plate to use.

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    1. Add me to that group waving from the screened in porch! Some how I out grew picnics about the time I began college.

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  23. Rhys, I have been a fan of John ever since meeting him at my little dinner gathering during the Raleigh Bouchercon. Elisabeth, four is the perfect number for our lunch. We can even play cards after, with partners, while the outdoor folk sweat and scratch their bug bites.

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  24. We had lots of picnics when I was a kid but I remember that Mom and Grandma who did the work didn't enjoy them as much. As someone who gets all the bug bites and poison ivy, I will join the indoor bunch.

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