Eating al fresco

An essay on eating outside, eating in the garden and the joys of al fresco dining with pretty table settings, on my blog, Our Story Time

“Shall we eat in the garden tonight?” was a line I lived for when I was little because it meant dinner would be fun food. Dinner in the garden meant potato salad and pizza and corn-on-the-cob and ice cream and no need to argue with my siblings over whose turn it was to lay the table in the first place, or wipe down the place mats afterwards. Dinner in the garden somehow made my parents a little more tranquil, a little less likely to tell us off or remind us to finish what was on our plates; it somehow made us kids a little less argumentative. It meant calling family friends over last minute, with no need to dress up in shalwar kameez (something I used to have to ordinarily do when my parents’ friends would visit).

Now that I am grown, with a small garden of my own which is budding with African daisies and poppies and honeysuckle, I love eating outside on summer nights.

Every year, we forget to buy enough garden chairs for all of us. Instead I unroll a large mat that’s big enough for all of us, and we sit on the grass or the deck. Here we eat thrown-together-food, sturdy simple food. The sort of fun, no-cook food I remember dinner in the garden always promised when I was a child. For us now this means means sliced up veggies and pots of humous and minty tzatziki; triangles of fried crispy tortillas; bowls of my favourite red baby plum tomatoes, chubby as a toddler’s thumb. Scoops of avocado; hunks of cheese and berries and mangoes I still don’t know how to slice despite all those summers in Lahore.

Lest this sound too idyllic, sometimes dinner in the garden is pizza ordered in. No one minds at all.

Sometimes, I’ll admit - dinner in the garden is more stressful than it needs to be or is supposed to be. Wasps, bees, flies; all the flying things my motley crew of children are frightened of. Sometimes the allure of garden toys is just so sparkling, it means no dinner is eaten at all. Some nights all they have is ice cream. Sometimes it all ends in tears because some small wise crack switched the hose pipe on to jet spray his siblings to boot.

Some nights, I carry them back inside over my shoulder, one by one, and do dinner all over again in the hope they might eat something, anything, before they go to bed.

It’s not exactly a challenge for me, to lighten up like this, but it’s not my normal way of doing things either. At the risk of sounding too much like some type A mother (the tendency is there, I’ll admit) I’m the kind of parent that is reassured by order. Ordinarily, for most of the year, dinner is always inside at the dining table and it marks an unsaid yet very clear shift in our daily routine. It means homework finished, bags packed for morning. It means toys tidied up; bath time round the corner and bed too soon after that. The last laundry load of the day. Counters, wiped. Everything, done. The satisfaction of it done well, too.

But summer dinners, schools-out dinners, dinner-in-the-garden dinners, throw all that order and timeliness to the wind. Instead, my floors are covered with the shadows of grubby feet, running outside and inside and outside again. My home is messier-than-normal. Fingerprints are smeared on back doors, ghosts of warm days. Baths become sloppy, skipped for soapy chases through the sprinkler instead. Bedtime is never quite so late, they simply remain unable to stay awake, but it is not quite with one eye on the clock.

I embrace this, even though it is so unlike the mother I am from September to somewhere mid-May, for how could I not? It does me good to let things go a little; to chill, so to speak. It does me good to slip into summer rather than try and time it or tick it off a to-do list. It does me good to remember. It does me good to recall what it was like to be little, to feel that ice cube cold delight when one of my parents would say: “Shall we eat in the garden tonight?”

Of course, you don’t need a garden for this sort of happy feeling. When I lived alone, a balcony was all I had and I’d sit there, a bowl of something on my knee. For a while, before we had a garden, I’d load the buggy up with pots of this and that from the fridge and we’d head out back for the dinner in the park. Any space where you can feel the sun on your face or the grass under your feet will do.

I guess all I’m saying is: it makes me happy, this time of year, when the honeysuckle tangles over the fence, when the day rolls into night, when we eat outside and we lose track of time and we realise that work and deadlines and all of that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway, never really did, but that all of this - this time - is the only thing that does.

Five favourite recipes for eating in the garden and dining al fresco