WFAEats: Dining In The Great Outdoors

May 24, 2019

In the summertime, there are two kinds of people: those who hide inside and those who march themselves outside to eat, drink, and cook.

No one can blame the insiders. But this piece is dedicated to the intrepid souls who brave the bugs and risk a blistering sunburn to make summer meals outdoors.

On the hottest day of the year, these people will light a backyard fire and stand over it for hours – with an air-conditioned kitchen steps away – just to cook the perfect juicy burger. They buy coolers and chillers that cost as much as gourmet cookware. Then, they pack their families into cars and set out across miles of searing asphalt just to eat a sandwich next to a stream.

This is actually sort of preposterous when you think about it, but it can also be a lot of fun if you can give yourself over to it.

To start with, an outdoor meal can be as simple as some berries you pick along a trail and whatever beverage you bring in a bottle. Barbecue plates wrapped to travel are perfect when you pull off the highway and seek out shade in a park.

Outdoor dining is casual because it’s an escape from our structured lives. But it’s not completely carefree. It takes planning. The more people you need to feed and the further from home base you travel, the more you need to plan. Yet, there’s a lot you can’t control – and that makes some people nervous.

For tips, we reached out to North Carolina picnic expert Ashley English. Based outside Asheville in Candler, she wrote a entire book on the topic, "A Year of Picnics: Recipes for Dining Well in the Great Outdoors."

She explained, “One thing that surprises people most is that a picnic can take place virtually anywhere, any time, and with anyone. On a mountaintop, a rooftop, a picnic table, a blanket, or a park bench, with one person or with one hundred people, there are really no limits.”

She also encourages outdoor diners to expand their repertoire and include meals at all times of day. “A breakfast picnic is fabulous, as is a twilight or evening picnic.”

But what happens when a storm sends everyone running for cover? When the campground is closed? (On Fourth of July one year, I promised to pick up chicken for a crowd and the restaurant was sold out). 

English said, “The best way to ensure success is to let go of expectations, and appreciate the experience for what it is. Don't let a few ants or raindrops make you lose sight of that.”

And that’s the challenge. Not everyone can get out there in the summertime, sweating and sometimes swearing, to prepare and serve a meal. Hardly anyone can do it perfectly.

“Some of the most memorable experiences, in both picnics and life in general, are peppered with snafus and setbacks,” English said.

We’re lucky here in North Carolina that we can drive just a few miles and see a different environment than the one we’re accustomed to, often with distinctive foods. From the sandy flatlands on the coast to Mount Mitchell more than 6,600 feet up, it’s the combinations of cuisine and scene – and the people with us – that make each occasion unique.

This weekend, the temps will be pushing their way toward 100 degrees. So let’s all promise we’ll do our best stay hydrated, and show our appreciation for our summertine grillers, smokers, s’mores-bakers, and sandwich-makers.

Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.