What is a picnic?
Food historians tell us picnics evolved from the elaborate traditions of moveable outdoor feasts enjoyed by the wealthy. Medieval hunting feasts, Renaissance-era country banquets, and Victorian garden parties lay the foundation for today’s leisurely repast. Picnics, as the Americans know them today, date to the middle of the 19th century. Although the “grand picnic” is generally considered a European concept, culinary evidence confirms people from other parts of the world engage in similar practices.
The earliest picnics in England were medieval hunting feasts. Hunting conventions were established in the 14th century, and the feast before the chase assumed a special importance. Gaston de Foiz, in a work entitled Le Livre de chasse (1387), gives a detailed description of such an event in France. As social habits in 14th century England were similar to those in medieval France, it is safe to assume that picnics were more or less the same. Foods consumed would have been pastries, hams, baked meats, and so on…Picnicking really come into its own during the Victorian era, and enters into the literature of that period. Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen all found pleasure in introducing this form of social event into their fiction. One can see why: a rustic idyll furnished an ideal way of presenting characters in a relaxed environment, and also provided an opportunity to describe a particularly pleasant rural spot. Painters have also been drawn to the subject…Monet, Renoir, Cezanne.
Manet – Luncheon on the grass
Tissot – The Picnic
The first usage of the word is traced to the 1692 edition of Tony Willis, Origines de la Langue Française, which mentions pique-nique as being of recent origin; it marks the first appearance of the word in print. The term was used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. The concept of a picnic long retained the connotation of a meal to which everyone contributed something. Whether picnic is actually based on the verb piquer which means ‘pick’ or ‘peck’ with the rhyming nique meaning “thing of little importance” is doubted; the Oxford English Dictionary says it is of unknown provenance.
The word picnic first appeared in English in a letter of the Gallicized Lord Chesterfield in 1748 (OED), who associates it with card-playing, drinking and conversation, and may have entered the English language from this French word. The practice of an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors, rather than a harvester worker’s dinner in the harvest field, was connected with respite from hunting from the Middle Ages; the excuse for the pleasurable outing of 1723 in François Lemoyne‘s painting is still offered in the context of a hunt.
The oldest print evidence of the word picnic in the English language can be traced back to 1748, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word picnic was known in France, Germany, and Sweden before it became part of the English society. According to Wikipedia, a free online encylopedia, “the first usage of the word picnic was traced to a 16th century French text, describing a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. A theory has it that the word picnic is based on the verb piquer which means ‘pick’ or ‘peck’ with the rhyming nique perhaps meaning trifle. The 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Franqoise de Ménage, which mentions ‘piquenique’ as being of recent origin, marks the first appearance of the word picnic in print. The word picnic first appeared in English texts in the mid-1700s, and may have entered the English language from this French word or from the German Picknick.”
Related historical events
After the French Revolution in 1789, royal parks became open to the public for the first time. Picnicking in the parks became a popular activity amongst the newly enfranchised citizens.
Early in the 19th century, a fashionable group of Londoners (including Edwin Young) formed the ‘Picnic Society‘. Members met in the Pantheon on Oxford Street. Each member was expected to provide a share of the entertainment and of the refreshments with no one particular host. Interest in the society waned in the 1850s as the founders died.
Thomas Cole‘s – The Pic-Nic 1846
From the 1830s, Romantic American landscape painting of spectacular scenery often included a group of picnickers in the foreground. An early American illustration of the picnic is Thomas Cole‘s The Pic-Nic of 1846 (Brooklyn Museum of Art). In it, a guitarist serenades the genteel social group in the Hudson River Valley with the Catskills visible in the distance. Cole’s well-dressed young picnickers having finished their repast, served from splint baskets on blue-and-white china, stroll about in the woodland and boat on the lake.
The image of picnics as a peaceful social activity can be utilised for political protest, too. In this context, a picnic functions as a temporary occupation of significant public territory. A famous example of this is the Pan-European Picnic held on both sides of the Hungarian/Austrian border on the 19 August 1989 as part of the struggle towards German reunification.
In 2000, a 600-mile-long picnic took place from coast to coast in France to celebrate the first Bastille Day of the new Millennium. In the United States, likewise, the 4 July celebration of American independence is a popular day for a picnic. In Italy, the favorite picnic day is Easter Monday.
Essentials around 1900
Be careful to dress for the entertainment, after consulting the barometer and the thermometer, and after learning the geography of the objective point of the day. A woolen dress that is not too heavy nor yet too new, or a cotton one that is not too think, with short, trim skirts, solid, easy shoes, that have a friendliness for the feet because of prolonged intimacy with them; pretty, but not too fine or thin stockings; a hat that has a broad brim; a large sun-shade or a sun-umbrella; at least two fresh handkerchiefs; some rings, and needle and thread stowed away in ones portemonnaie or chatelaine-pocket; easy gloves, with ample wrists; a jacket to wear when returning home; and a rug or traveling-shawl to spread upon the ground at dinner time, are among the requisites of personal comfort and prettiness.
George Goodwin Kilburne – The Picnic ca 1900
For the feast, forget not the napkins, forks, spoons and the luncheon-cloth. Also carry tumblers, plates, salt, pepper, sugar and a bottle of cream or can of condensed milk. Cups with handles, but no saucers, are desirable for tea and coffee…The following bill of are may be selected from, with such changes as suit the locality or general surroundings. Bill of fare for a spring picnic. Cold Roast Chicken. Sandwiches of Potted Rabbit. Bewitched Veal. Small Rolls with Salad Filling. Cold Baked Ham. Egg Salad. Buttered Rolls. Hard Boiled Eggs. Crackers. Chow Chow. Bombay Toast. Pickles. Orange Marmalade. Quince Jelly. Sugared Strawberries. White Cake. Almond Cake. Cocoanut Jumbles. Lemonade. Tea Cakes. Raspberry Vinegar. Bill of fare for a summer picnic. Cold Boiled Chicken. Tongue Sandwiches. Spiced Beef. Sardines. Jellied Chicken. Pickled Salmon. Spanish Pickles. Sweet Peach Pickles. Boston Brown Bread. Beans. Fresh Fruits. Imperial Cake. Neapolitan Cake. Small Fancy Cakes.
From “Queen of the Household” by Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth published in 1900
Outdoor meals 1924
From time immemorial the outdoor meal has been a real fete; probably because in the earlier days there were not so many large buildings as now, so when groups were to get together it was necessarily to occupy the out-of-doors. It was undoubtedly because of this that barbecues became so popular, and because a real outdoor fete is nowadays a rarity, that they are so popular…
There is no reason why the outdoor meal should not become a habit with everyone except in very stormy weather; children should be encouraged to take their luncheons outdoors on Saturdays. There is nothing so wonderful as the adventures of playing “camping out” in the spring, summer, or late fall…During the warm weather the family can frequently eat outdoors, on the piazza, roof, in the backyards, or in a near-by park. A delightful way for a city woman to entertain her city friends in the summer is by means of a picnic lunch in the park, because it is a novelty, and because, after all, everyone loves the out-of-doors.
From “Mrs. Allen on Cooking, Menus, Service” by Ida C. Bailey Allen published in 1924
Picnic Suggestions 1943
If the purity of the picnic water supply is in doubt, carry a gallon jug of water from home. Prepare a basket with the necessary knives, forks and spoons, paper cups, plates and napkins, as well as pepper, salt and any desired condiments. To keep liquids hot or cold, use a thermos bottle of jug. To keep food hot, carry it in a portable electric roaster or casserole, or in a sealed jar, wrapped in many thicknesses of paper. Foods may be kept cold by wrapping first in cold, wet towels, then in many thicknesses of paper. Sandwiches should be made with fillings that will not soak into the bread or wilt, and would not be ready for serving wrapped in waxed paper.
Cold Picnic Lunches
No. 1: Sandwiches…filled with sliced meat, eggs, cheese, jam or nut butters, Deviled Eggs, Cottage Cheese, Fruit, Cookies, Coffee or Lemonade.
No. 2: Chicken Salad…or Meatloaf
Potato Chips or Shoe String Potatoes, Bread and Butter Sandwiches, Radishes, Onions, Raw Carrot Sticks, Whole Tomatoes
Cup Cakes, Picnic Lemonade
The English are the greatest of picnickers and have led the field for hundreds of years. They have hampers for the races, outdoor teas for the amusement of children, and all sorts of occasions for sitting and eating in the countryside. In France along the roads one sees families seated in collapsible chairs around a collapsible table eating and drinking with gusto. In Japan elaborate picnic boxes may be purchased to be take to the football field or to a spot beside a placid pool. In America there are picnic tables along the roadside where one may set up a simple meal or sandwiches or do a barbecue. In Scandinavia you can find picnic tables both along the roadside and in public parks.
Wherever it is done, picnicing can be one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life. At its most elegant, it calls for the accompaniment of the best linens and crystal and china; at its simplest it needs only a bottle of wine and items purchased from the local delicatessen as one passes through town…
The colour and charm of the countryside can make the most modest meal taste superb. Have a picnic at the slightest excues. It is even fun to have a box lunch and a hot drink in the car on a wintry day, while you look out at a dazzling stretch of landscape…
A Festive Country or Beach Picnic–Without Sandwiches: Stuffed Tomatoes, Veal or Pork Terrine, Beef a la Mode ed Gelee, Potato Salad or Green Salad, French Bread, Butter, Cheese, Fruit, Angel Food Cake…
A Champagne Picnic for 4 or 6: Macadamia Nuts, Potage Germinty, Roast Fillet of Beef, Potato and Hearts of Palm Salad, Cherry Tomatoes, French or Italian Bread, Sweet Butter, Fresh Fruit, Cream Cheese or Roquefort, Petits Fours Squares…
A Beer Picnic for a Large Gathering: Sausage Board, Westphalian Ham, Boiled or Baked Ham, Cold Meat Loaf, Deviled Eggs, Caviar Eggs, Pungent Eggs, Cole Slaw, Senfgurken, Dill Pickles, Emmenthal Cheese, Rye, Pumpernickel and Butter, Apple Kuchen…
An Antipasto Picnic: This is eminently easy to prepare. In fact, the whole picnic may be assembled by shopping at the Italian delicatessens and the vegetable market.
From “James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining” by James Beard, published in 1965
Read more here:
Picnic at Wikipedia
Food Timeline – Picnics
picnic-basket.com – The history of picnicing
History in a Basket: It’s Picnic Time!
Picnicking Through The Ages
Powerhouse Museum – History Week: Picnics
”The Picnic” by Walter Levy on Google Books
“Picnic: 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menu” by DeeDee Stovel on Google books
Craftsy: The History of the Picnic + Your Perfect Picnic Menu!