Impromptu pandemic picnic reflections

“This ‘novel’ coronavirus of 2020 may wind up being remembered as the pandemic that all at once sent society spiraling in two completely opposite directions: thrusting us into a new and different society while at the same time forcing us to fondly remember the society that has left us behind.” 

—Me, I said that.

Looking for lunch while in Tyler the week before restaurants began reopening proved to be more than an exercise in deciding which eat-in-the-car experience sounded more enticing. The bonus was time to reflect on how dining out used to be and how it may come to be.

Eating anywhere on the go was pretty low on my “wow factor” scale that day, but anything sounded more appealing than another drive-through order that concluded with, “you want fries with that?” The winning nod went to an experiment with the curbside cuisine experience at one of the somewhat more upscale, no drive-through window, and temporarily closed inside dining establishments. 

An exquisitely prepared grilled chicken breast on rice with steamed veggies enjoyed by candlelight in a table cloth restaurant setting oozing with ambiance is simply the best. Somehow though, the presentation just isn’t the same served in a Styrofoam container at a pop-up tent by masked and gloved wait staff. But for satisfying my taste buds that day, it was five stars above leaning out the car window debating with a “wha – wha – wha,” faceless metal speaker. 

Decent meal in hand, the next challenge of where to enjoy it other than in my car seat was quickly resolved with the discovery of a patch of tree-shaded grass at the back of the completely empty restaurant parking lot. It was an old-fashioned picnic in the making.

Grilled chicken on the grass for a spring afternoon picnic evoked memories of grade school days in the small town of Seymour near Wichita Falls, just one of Dad’s many gigs with Perry Brothers. The long-gone five-and-dime stores moved managers more often than the Methodist Church moves ministers. And that’s perhaps a fitting comparison as Seymour was where Mom worked diligently to convert Dad to a church-going regular, a crusade that unfortunately yielded very little fruit over the years. 

Dad tried it more than once but was a perpetual backslider who seemed happier with his kitchen ministry of preparing Sunday lunch for the family. However, his being more prone to open the cookbook on Sunday morning than the ‘Good Book’ produced memorable moments. Arriving home after services meant either a delectable dinner on the table or a picnic packed for a driving adventure.

Picnic memories range from afternoons at Lake Kemp near Wichita Falls to some of the many small roadside parks that once dotted the highways every few miles. Sometimes though, it included a special trip to historical sites: places like Fort Belknap located south of Seymour near Newcastle, Texas, the northernmost fort in a line from the Rio Grande to the Red River established to protect the Texas frontier against raids by the Kiowa and Comanches.

Picnics were frequent fun amid growing up in the age of stay at home moms like ours who had every meal on the table like clockwork. Therefore eating out was a rarity for us in the late 50s and early 60s—just not something our family did. On those very rare experiences, the fare was limited to drive-up burger joints with carhops. The closest thing to a chain restaurant in the small Texas towns in which we lived was Dairy Queen, and even they were yet to expand into futuristic things like dining rooms or drive-through window service. 

Enjoying a pandemic picnic purchased from a drive-by popup tent a couple of weeks ago wasn’t quite the equivalent of Dad’s Sunday afternoon picnics. But relaxing on the grass for lunch with spring breezes underscoring the picture-perfect weather did serve to remind me of two things. One, family fun on family picnic outings some 60 years ago. And two, like those picnics, post-pandemic dining out experiences will likely be something completely different.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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