"There is one firm … requirement" of the picnic, M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her delightful 1957 essay, The Pleasures of Picnics: It "must be eaten outdoors." In case you didn't get that, she adds, for emphasis, "al fresco, en plein air."
With great deference to Ms. Fisher, I must, however, disagree. This is not to say I don't love a good summer spread under the shade of a years-old tree as much as anyone — I do! Ants, grass stains, and all. In fact, I love picnics so much that I simply can't reserve them for natural settings. No, my requirements for a picnic are much simpler.
Besides the requirement that it "must be carried away from human dwellings" (i.e., outside!), there are other characteristics that Ms. Fisher deemed essential to the picnic. It "must be kept simple," she wrote, although she later conceded, it must also be a feast. And it's obliged, too, to "have a certain amount of hazard about it, eaten … in the company of at least one intimate or a good number … of fairly close people."
More on picnics: 5 Literary Lessons on the Perils (and Possibilities) of Picnics
The "simple" part I'm down with, and the "good number" of intimates too, and even hazards. But what I really need is the following: a blanket on the ground, lavished with the intertwined legs of my loved ones, and dotted with containers brimming with food and flimsy utensils that will inevitably result in crumbs and stains and a general mess once we've stuffed ourselves silly.
I've come to this opinion after significant experience with my brood and one of our all-time favorite family traditions: the hotel picnic.
My husband and I have three kids, ages 7, 3, and 2, and at least once a month we pack them up for a trip — one that's typically part work and part pleasure, and one that almost always involve a hotel picnic.
How to Have a Hotel Picnic
Although my husband plies his trade as a photographer and translator these days, he has been a professional chef and still cooks for us every day, so he generally charges himself with the task of whipping up mains and snacks before we hit the highway, packing Tupperware, Tiffin boxes, and thermoses with our favorite foods and drinks to feast on once we check in.
There are really no limits to what he's cooked or prepped for these adventures, but pastas, grain- or bean-based salads (orzo, couscous, quinoa, white beans, and garbanzos all work well, tossed with olive oil and an assortment of vegetables, usually whatever we had on hand before we left), charcuterie and cheese, nuts and dried fruits, and a really good loaf of bread, already sliced, are part of the regular rotation.
Recipes for Your Hotel Picnic
My job is to make sure that we've got all the other essentials in the car.
- A proper picnic blanket (we have several, some bought at thrift stores and others purchased from textile artisans or at markets in Mexico, but a flat bed sheet will do just fine).
- A bottle of wine and one of apple cider for the kids.
- A bottle opener and corkscrew in one.
- A reusable cork (just in case there's anything left).
- A package of baby wipes.
- A Swiss Army knife and a utensil for each family member (we like the Light My Fire spork from REI, a three-in-one utensil that comes in different colors so each kid can have their own).
- A good salt, since it's alchemical and we can't take the whole spice rack with us (Maldon makes a fabulous travel tin, but we mix our own with spices — maybe pimentón or Nigerian cayenne — and put them in small glass vials with a cork stopper).
- A favorite book about food, for good measure — maybe Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things or, why not?, M.F.K. Fisher herself. The point of any good picnic, after all, is to really unplug and luxuriate in food and each other. Lazing around and reading to each other after indulging in a picnic repast is the ultimate definition of quality time — indoors or out.
And honestly, that's it. Whatever else you need, you can find when you arrive. Nearly every hotel these days has glasses or cups for drinks, and if you need to heat up a dish before serving, you might find a microwave in your room, or prevail upon the good humor of a front desk attendant. And shhh, don't tell the housekeeping staff, but my husband has even used the hotel room iron as a panini press.
If the cooking and packing up food at home bit of the family hotel picnic sounds too overwhelming, don't stress yourself. Skip the prep work, explore the town or city where you find yourselves, and buy some takeout (that's what we did above!). Head back to your hotel room, spread your blanket across the floor, eat family-style out of the containers, and don't worry one bit about the mess. You'll just fold all the spills, stains, and crumbs up into a tight ball or envelope of fabric to take home and wash at the end of the trip.
You never know — your family might even consider the hotel picnic one of the highlights of your trip.