Oh Joy! It’s summer and we get to go to family picnics again. I just can’t wait for that first tasty bite of some mayonnaise laden macaroni concoction, especially after it’s be sitting in the ninety-degree sun for two to three hours. I mean, I haven’t had food poisoning in almost mine months now.
In case you didn’t realize, that last paragraph was sarcasm. Personally, I view family picnics with the same enthusiasm as a tax audit. There is a lot of running around preparing. When you get there, it is a bunch of “Hellos” and hand shaking. Then serious talk for an hour or so. Followed by several uncomfortable conversations when you’re wishing you could find some way to escape. There’s probably not going to be any terrible news, or major incidents, but when it’s over, you’re a lot happier than when you got there.
You’ve probably heard someone say after a heart attack, “This was the worst time for this to happen.” Afterward some joker invariably asked, “Is there ever a good time for a heart attack? Ha ha ha” I do agree, the true answer to this question is; No. But I must admit, since I have good insurance and with cardiac medicine improving as fast as it is, that the pain of a simple arrythmia, and maybe a partial blockage, could possibly be worth it, to avoid such family gatherings. Although, I really don’t know.
You see, outings with my family get kind of complicated. I have a rather large family and with parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, assorted cousins, three or four rotating girlfriends, a few new babies, an occasional dog or two, and one uncle Howard, there is always some bit of news to catch up on. On the plus side is the fact you get to see folks you haven’t seen in a year, and, if they are under twenty, can comment on how big they are. Over twenties, get the standard, “Oh my heavens, you look so good.” Yes, it’s trite, but you know I’m right.
On the minus side, of course, there is the drama. I’m not going to talk about this because, frankly, my research has shown that the minute you mention your family drama, the conversation becomes a game of “Can you top this?” So, I’ll just keep my drama to myself and let you keep yours. I will however mention my uncle Dave , who is a professional clown and just married a woman sixteen years his junior. Okay, he’s been mentioned. Moving on.
The other negative which I WILL talk about is the food. In my family there are eons old traditions which must be maintained. Most of them make about as much sense as sacrificing a virgin to the volcano god to improve the harvest. But they started somewhere and for some long forgotten reason they must be maintained. For example: My aunt Sarah won a blue ribbon, in a county fair, for a desert she created. She took it to the state fair as well, and it came in third. Believe me when I tell you; it is delicious. She is rightly very proud of it. If you are visiting, and she has the three hours to make it, you have to try it. You won’t regret it.
The thing is, the three primary components of it are; Jello, cream cheese, and whipped cream. All of these ingredients melt in the hot sun. In fact, when it’s really hot, the cream will also go rancid. Now, Sarah always arrives early, and since the delicacy is so beautiful, she removes it from the cooler and proudly puts it on display. By midafternoon it’s soup. Warm fruity, nutty, creamy, chocolate mush. And she lovingly stands behind it, making sure everyone gets some. Let’s just say it’s better from the fridge.
Next there is Franklin. He’s not even part of the family. He’s a friend of my mother’s brother-in-law who always seems to get invited. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. He’s got some of the best bar jokes, and one-liners, I’ve ever heard. His thing is, tradition has dictated that he must run the grill. To him a hamburger isn’t done until it looks like a piece of charcoal. Seriously, he once read an article saying undercooked meat could be a problem. Therefore, everything must be over cooked for safety.
Look, I’ve been to New Orleans. I like blackened chicken a lot. I don’t like inedible black chicken. I once saw him turn the juiciest, most beautiful, brat into pork jerky. The weird thing is, the whole group is repelled by his cooking. But we have been trained from an early age to eat this char happily so as not to offend him. Family Tradition dictates that no matter how the food turns out, you can never offend the chef.
And speaking of chefs, my cousin Christie is a professional chef. She works in one of the best restaurants in town. She makes so many wonderful recipes, it is to stifle the imagination. You’d think you’d be drooling in anticipation, wondering what little bit of wonderfulness she would bring. Sadly, our established custom has decided she must bring potato salad. I’ve talked with her. She hates making potato salad, but since the dish is a picnic requirement, and hers is the best, she must, by law, bring it no matter what. At least she knows what a cooler does.
There is another odd thing which must be mentioned. My aunt grace makes jelly, so good you’d think you’re in heaven. Therefore, she makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the drop of a hat. You guessed it, ours is the only Pot-Luck in the world with PB&Js lovingly nestled between corn soufflé and rum-soaked strawberry cobbler.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have to admit those sandwiches as well as much of the other food is fantastic, and there’s lots of it. Pulled pork, fried chicken, potato casserole, baked beans, and garlic wings are always on the menu. Also, since tradition doesn’t apply to everyone there are always some surprises. Not necessarily tasty, but always surprising.
The weirdest thing about our gatherings requires a little bit of explanation. You see, our parties have anywhere from thirty to fifty people. If everyone brings something, and duty requires you must taste everything, and everyone cooks for sixty people, just in case, there is going to be a ton of leftovers. The funny thing about us is, no one wants to take what they brought home. They’re all tired of it. That’s where I come in. Tradition dictates I bring plastic containers with lids and take the leftovers home. That duty fell to me, because of my three hungry children. I freeze it for the winter. Since I started this my grocery bill has never been so low.
Maybe I won’t have that heart attack after all. There is a silver lining to every dark cloud.