A picnic is a world of its own.

An exploration of the world around complemented with a food-laden basket.You may be quietly recalling frost on the ground as you arose this morning and may be wondering why a picnic blanket unseasonably crosses my mind.

Picnic pleasures are synonymous with laid-back summer days, but a change of seasons needn't eliminate the delight of outdoor eating.

In fact, the changing season creates a reason to continue picnicking.

I admit my first response to the idea included a raised eyebrow, but my North Carolina neighbors insisted a late-fall picnic compares favorably with a summer spread at the beach.

Rosy cheeks picnic, they called it.

And for seven seasons I obliged, at first reluctantly, then energetically.

Pullen Park, adjoining the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, provided a setting as picturesque as any nearby mountain retreat. The towering oaks deposited a dependable blanket of leaves. The crisp autumn air, according to prescription, reddened our noses.

Picnic blankets often escaped the ground and covered our shoulders, but the chill bred a family coziness missing in the heat of the summer. Children halted endless movements to snuggle for a moment.

Moments of closeness bound together with a steaming mug of chowder or charcoal-grilled burger.

Wally and Marilyn Kasteler organize a family picnic after the first snowfall of each year.

"We take all the kids and the grandkids up Big Cottonwood to the first picnic tables. We only roast hot dogs, but the kids love it. They can't wait to go," Kasteler explained.

Kasteler's daughter, Kim Crawford, recalled the original picnic. "We'd planned to go for weeks, but something kept coming up. We finally got everyone together, but it turned cold. We decided it was now or never, so we went anyway. We had such a good time, we've gone after the first snow ever since."

Though the menu might venture beyond hot dogs and soups, dining outdoors doesn't require extensive planning and preparation.

Picnics have relaxed considerably since the mid-1800s when Mrs. Beeton, in her "Book of Household Management," decreed that a proper picnic should consist of 35 dishes.

Today's picnic food should be easy to prepare and transport.

Neighborhood delis provide satisfying menu items without your setting foot in the kitchen. Fast-food restaurants create palatable carry-outs, but simple recipes personalize a picnic with a home-cooked touch.

Perfect picnic food is eaten out of hand. Ribs, pureed soups, phyllo- wrapped pastries, dips and crackers, muffins, rolls and cookies easily fill a basket.

Select foods that fit into containers and wrap and stack for convenient packing.

Summer picnic rules still apply to an off-season meal: Hot foods should remain hot and can be insulated with newspaper, brown paper bags or heated tiles. Cold foods should remain cold, though concerns about food poisoning are minimized in the chill of fall.

Al fresco dinners become efficient when packed in order of use - crucial items should be packed on top of the basket.

A variety of new equipment simplifies taking dinner on the road. A portable Japanese-influenced hibachi provides an on-the-spot grill. Thermoses boast many sizes and have pour, pump or spigot dispensers. Insulated bags protect both hot and cold picnic items; one new bag separates into three separate compartments and has an attached shoulder strap for ease in carrying. Convenient snap-lid containers cover any food shape.

A picnic shared is described by Mole and Rat in Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows." They unpacked "all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents in due order, still gasping, `Oh my! Oh my!' at each fresh revelation."

Whether you break away at dawn because it's the only time you have, enjoy the heat of the day or catch the sunset backlighting the leaves, an autumn picnic adventure energizes the soul.


Recipes listed:

The World's Best Cookies

Tortellini Chicken Salad

Zucchini and Sausage Pie

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Picnic Calzones

Harvest Fruit Salad

Butternut Apple Soup