Picnicking is so popular in the U.K., they actually have a National Picnic Week in June, right before the summer solstice. It comes complete with official suggestions.
Traditional dishes like Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat then fried in bread crumbs) are making a big comeback, along with pork pies, pasties and homemade sausage rolls. Mixed in with the meat and carb suggestions are sensible ones, like adding healthy summer greens in various forms to your basket along with lots of fresh summer fruit.
But one of the National Picnic Week taglines this year pondered is if millennials are too posh to picnic? I hope not, because they would definitely be missing out on one of the beautiful moments of life. Besides, as history shows, picnics have been breaking class and other boundaries for years.
Leave it to the French to invent the picnic, or le pique-nique, as they originally called it. The history of the word is hazy, but first mention was in France in the late 1600s with no definitive explanation as to why and where exactly the term arose. Most likely it was simply a playful rhyming duplication of the French verb pique, meaning "to pick."
And what else do we do on a picnic, but pick ants from the tablecloth, burrs from our socks, seeds from the watermelon, and bits of this and that from the proffered offerings scattered on a blanket or tablecloth among the tangle of legs and elbows. (The picnic table is a relatively recent but welcome invention.)
In one of those peculiar reversals of status, le pique-nique started humbly as a meal taken outdoors by peasants in France. It spread to Germany (a description of a "piquenic" near Hanover was recorded in 1748) and on to Sweden.
Then the concept moved across the channel to England, where history has one "Miss Knight" writing in her autobiography of 1777 about going to a little country house outside Toulon for a "pique nique." No doubt she told everyone about it when she returned to England, and soon the upper class was abandoning their fine oak tables and comfortably upholstered chairs to drag some hinds of deer outdoors and sit on the ground and eat them.
The early 1800s in England saw the rise of fashionable Pic Nic Societies. These hosted Pic Nic suppers and, yes, they were capitalized. Each member drew a lot obliging her or him to provide the dish indicated.
"The rich," recorded one seemingly piqued observer, who may have never received an invite, "have their sports, their balls and their parties of pleasure and their pic nics."
This is likely when the idea took root of picnic as something desirable and genteel, with all the attendant ideas of a posh leisure class hooked in. Romance was part and parcel.
Given our notion that all things French are romantic, I have to bring up a French painting as provocative as it is mysterious. It features a very unusual picnic.
Even if you've never visited the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, you've likely seen a reproduction of Édouard Manet's Déjeuener sur l'Herbe. A fabulously big painting, it features a sun-dappled forest where a pique-nique is underway. Front and centre, two young gentlemen in dark suits befitting gentlemen of the 1860s flank one very naked young woman. She gazes frankly at us, completely poised and unconcerned about her lack of clothing, including her bare legs intertwined with the gentlemen's clothed ones.
At the time, it was nothing short of un scandale! Had Manet gone mad? Everyone in 1860s Paris knew you had to paint a nude in a classical setting and here she was, naked as a jaybird enjoying a picnic with all these clothed men, with a basket of fruit and empty wineglasses tumbling across the messed up tablecloth!
If you feel like some drama on your next picnic, I couldn't think of a better set up. On the other hand, we've got enough excitement around, so just kick back, try some of the easy pickin's below, and enjoy.
Revamp your pickin's for picnickin'
• The key to a real picnic is eating outside without a barbecue. Save that for barbecues. But you can bar-b something at home and bring it along. Try some chicken and bacon kebobs you marinate in olive oil with a bit of lemon, fresh garlic and thyme and grill the night before. Picnic on a stick that's so easy to eat!
• This can be a bit hard to eat gracefully, but what the heck, you're outside, so feed the droppings to the crows. Cut a big circular lid out of a bigger round of bread then hollow it out. (Make bread crumbs out of the remains to use later.) Stuff it with layers of your favourite cold cuts and cheeses in whatever combo strikes your fancy: salami, pepperoni, your favourite ham or prosciutto, slices of gruyere or Swiss or even a nice layer of goat cheese. Don't forget the veggies. If you "sandwich" some thinly sliced tomatoes or cuke between a mix of garden fresh greens — lettuce, mesclun salad mix, arugula, fresh basil leaves, parsley or mint — the leaves will help keep the veggy juices from leaking out and getting your super-sandwich soggy. Bring a big knife and slice it into pie-shaped wedges to serve.
• Transform your traditional coleslaw by substituting all or part of the cabbage with thinly sliced fennel root. Try adding apple, thinly sliced celery and, if you're feeling posh, lightly toasted walnuts for a refreshing cross between coleslaw and a classic Waldorf salad. Fresh lemon juice, with the tiniest sprinkling of sugar to balance the acid, will freshen up the dressing and keep the apples from going brown. You can also cut the mayo with unsweetened Mediterranean-style yogurt and keep your salad more summer-safe. To that end, don't forget the ice packs in your carry-all.
• Here's a good picnic-y quickie. It's great if you have time to make your own sausage rolls using puff pastry — just wrap your favourite sausages and bake in a 350 oven for about 45 minutes — but if not, fear not. Grab some sausage rolls from your favourite deli and slice them up before you get to the park. Cold is fine. Add a fresh salsa or relish and you've got a great picnic pick.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who packs a mean picnic in one small bag.
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