Our Love Affair with Picnics — The Moveable Feast

published Jul 30, 2016
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(Image credit: [Stone] Tanglewood picnickers circa 1947. Photo by Erika Stone.)

For the first six months of her life, my daughter lived entirely on picnics. A mother’s moveable feast — packed not in a basket, but a nursing bra — taught her that eating was a pleasure to be had wherever you might find yourself. Then at the six-month solid-food milestone, mealtimes suddenly became lessons in modern civility: silverware, linen (aka bibs), and being confined to a chair rather than reclining as if at a Roman banquet.

This free spirit, however, wrestled against socialization and refused to be soothed with any customs of the indoors. So when June came two months later, and with it the high heat of a Southern summer, my husband and I moved dinner outside. On a spare bed sheet under the shade of an ancient oak at a nearby park, we spread out cold chicken and black beans smoked through with ancho chilies, or simple cherry tomatoes swimming in olive oil and coarse sea salt. My daughter happily explored avocados or Carolina sweet potatoes, often with an amuse-bouche of her old portable meal. She was free to sit, to lie, to crawl, to eat, to wonder at the new taste of strawberry or the feel of grass all around, to graze — in all senses of the word.

(Image credit: Photo by BSO Archives/Walter H. Scott, circa 1980. Used by permission of the Scott family.)

All the Ways We Picnic Outdoors

This is precisely how picnics hit that sweet spot right between nature and culture. They speak to our desire to eat free from the fetters of tables and chairs and walls. But not so free as to be wild, subsisting only on the fished, foraged, or hunted. Picnics are ritual declarations of independence from the strictures of ordinary eating. They are small gastronomic rebellions that we can incite throughout the summer.

Of course, as far back as you can think, humans have eaten outdoors, either by necessity or as a luxury masquerading as folly. But In the Picnic: A History, Walter Levy points out that the word itself is relatively recent, going back only to a 1649 French satire of an overindulging Brother Pique-Nique.

The picnic — as a word and a ritual — really takes off in the late 18th century. No surprise, given the radical new ideas about liberty on both sides of the Atlantic as well as Romantic poets’ search for truth and beauty in nature rather than culture. By 1815, in Jane Austen’s famous Box Hill picnic, her title character Emma looks forward to the freedom of an outdoor meal presented “in a quiet, unpretending, elegant way” instead of the “the bustle and preparation, the regular eating and drinking, and picnic parade of the Eltons and the Sucklings.”

Toward the middle of the 19th century, Romantic simplicity gives way to Victorian excess. In 1861 domestic writer Mrs. Beeton instructs readers on catering a picnic for 40 in her famous Book of Household Management: a joint of cold roast beef, 2 shoulders of lamb, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 18 lettuces, 2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, a few baskets of fresh fruit, 6 pounds of butter, 3 dozen rolls, 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes, 1/2 pound of tea, 3 dozen quart bottles of ale, 2 dozen bottles of ginger-beer, 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, and “Champagne a discretion.” And that is merely a fraction of the full menu.

As trains, and eventually cars, shorten the distance between suffocating cities and the wide open world, picnics likewise pick up the pace. In the 1920s, the Curtis company created The Motor Luncheon Cookbook to promote liberal use of their canned olives, sardines, and pimientos in the great outdoors. Others followed suit. Whatever the feast might be, it became truly moveable.

The Picnic Hamper Magic Trick

And remote locations became more accessible.

Like the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where ticket holders have been eating outdoors at the Tanglewood music festival since the 1930s. “When you go to Tanglewood, it’s this incredible spectacle of a huge lawn of people picnicking all together,” says Gina Hyams, author of The Tanglewood Picnic. Candelabras, floral arrangements, and proper table linens aren’t uncommon. “There’s this sense of magic there,” says Hyams.

Magic. It’s a word that resonates for me when I think of picnics too — especially picnic hampers. They perform my favorite magic trick by transforming a complete dining room into a take-anywhere portmanteau — plates and knives perfectly secured with leather straps, matching cloth napkins tidied into wine glasses, and sidecar cases holding a bottle of Champagne or two. They turn invisible all the work of chopping, mixing, cooking, and baking. Everything unfolds with ease just at the moment it’s to be devoured.

(Image credit: Public Domain)

As in Mole and Rat’s picnic in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, with its sheer abundance of food in wildly abundant nature. Pulling a luncheon basket into their boat, Rat tells his new friend, “There’s cold chicken inside it,” as well as “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgepottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater.” Mole is awestruck. Rat insists it’s still not enough.

But it isn’t just the plenty that makes readers still fall in love with this riverbank repast. It’s that certain bond forged when breaking bread together turns a meal into an adventure. That’s the very essence of a picnic.

What will yours be this summer?