I think the Victorians must have known a thing or two about how to live well outdoors; there is no basis in fact for this claim, but my mind’s eye sees a woman of means with her hair swept up above her high collar, wearing an ivory brooch and bustle, sitting at an elegant wicker table not unlike the one in the picture. She is leaning in to speak to the gentleman seated at her elbow. She could be a Vanderbilt, for all I know, opining to her husband about the great, sweeping changes the railroad has brought to American commerce. (She could not have foreseen the Internet.) Still. The wicker furniture has not changed much since that pleasant alfresco evening.
I don’t know when we Americans began to drift away from the ritual of sitting down and breaking bread as a family (many of us, anyway) but I certainly remember meals taken together as a daily practice in my house growing up. Still, when considering the proverbial question, do you live to eat, or eat to live? my seven-year-old self would not hesitate to choose the latter. Sit up straight and eat your vegetables, the familiar dinner table refrain, suggests it’s okay to slouch when you’re eating everything else. But I have a feeling that’s not what my parents meant.
There was also the dinner-bite countdown: Yes, you can go outside and play, but only after you have three more bites of peas. Not two. Never four. Just three. The family dog was the occasional beneficiary: sometimes manna from heaven looks a whole lot like buttered peas. Three bites of ‘em.
Thirty years out found me sitting on the other side of the dinner table, so to speak, struggling with my own tricky seven-year-old, establishing food rituals, encouraging culinary exploration but also fighting a few battles: asking him to sit still at all instigated an insufferable bout of whining, to say nothing of urging him to eat fruit or veggies, with only a few notable exceptions (watermelon, okay, grapes, forget about it, asparagus grudgingly, but only the tips, and French fries—wait, that’s a vegetable, right?). Unbelievably, I managed to raise a kid in the South who would not eat a succulent, juicy tomato if his life depended on it unless it was presented as a vehicle for melted cheese on a doughy pizza.
Enter the blessed summer months, when an intoxicating evening breeze urges us to pick up our plates and carry them outside. In my young family, not only did alfresco dining allow us to honor the ritual of eating together, it made the dining experience enjoyable—for all of us. You can’t convince a kid to eat anything if he won’t sit still long enough to do it, nor will you likely allow him to wag a drippy wedge of watermelon all over the house with him. (He’ll report he’s hungry along about bedtime.)
But outside? The entire patio or front lawn is his tablecloth. Or picnic blanket, as it were; grazing is a sanctioned habit.
There is also a social benefit to this formula. Living as we did on a busy corner in our diverse midtown neighborhood meant plenty of passersby out for an evening constitutional; occasionally somebody we knew would pull up a chair and join us for a glass of wine or a nibble. Youngsters and oldsters alike, with dogs, pushing strollers, riding scooters: we got to know the community thanks to a pint-sized extrovert who welcomed the opportunity to hop down from his chair and sprint across the lawn for a quick howdy, his face besmeared with dinner; he never met a stranger, nor did his parents, by default. What began as a fair-weather family ritual later expanded to include neighborhood friends around our backyard pool; the more the merrier.
And as our summertime alfresco dinners evolved into bigger events, so grew an impressive collection of indestructible outdoor china and accoutrements. I never needed an excuse to own more than one set of dishes, and with outdoor dinnerware and textiles available in beautiful styles and patterns, the sky’s the limit. Nudge me towards colorful, durable plates, and I’m there before you can say, Put your napkin in your lap. Fresh, summery place settings are lovely on pretty outdoor furniture, and it’s no big deal if little fingers (or even big ones) drop something on an unforgiving hardscape.
It may be a struggle to get everybody to sit down to dinner together at the same moment (without electronic devices at the table, thank you very much), but it is so worthwhile and enjoyable. And the changing of the seasons presents the perfect opportunity for alfresco dining. The side effects alone are compelling enough: meeting new friends, talking to your teenager about something you might otherwise have missed, relaxing the table etiquette a bit (with apologies to the Vanderbilts)—and the eating of actual vegetables has been known to occur.