Dietribes: Preparing the Perfect Picnic

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We're taking a break from our usual format this week to focus on a more general dining experience, and one we felt apropos to the season - the picnic. James Beard says it best, "Wherever it is done, picnicking 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 Encyclopedia of Food and Culture tells us, "there is no reliable etymology for the word picnic, with the original use of the word lagging about three hundred years behind the first descriptions of al-fresco (open air) dining. From about 1340 until the very early 1800s, there are three contextual descriptions of picnics, whether or not the word is actually used: a pleasure party at which a meal was eaten outdoors; a hunt assembly; and an indoor social gathering or dinner party. "

"¢ And as far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned a picnic was, "originally; a fashionable social event at which each guest contributed a share of the food. Now: an informal meal eaten out of doors, esp. as part of an excursion to the countryside, coast, etc."

"¢ A guide to early picnics from Sports Illustrated of all places, says, "Picnics may have thrived first in the ages of chivalry and romance, but they took on an entirely different coloration when they crossed the Atlantic. In pioneer America, picnics built log cabins, raised barns, threshed wheat; there were husking bees, soap boilings, quilting bees, tree-felling drives. All picnics. As the need for community effort passed, the gregarious pleasure of eating out of doors has lingered on as a social custom"

"¢ There are a number of famous picnics that take place all over the world. To start, Bastille Day 2000 in France featured roughly 405 miles of checkered tablecloth spread over tables up to six-tenths of a mile long, and had an estimated 3 million participates, along with countless others who celebrated locally. On our own shores, an annual Congressional picnic on the White House lawn just took place recently in June.

"¢ The Picnic Society of London (1802"“1803) was a short-lived elite social club "“ Entertainment at the first meeting included a French proverb and an act from the Bedlamites (translated for the occasion). Dinner was then provided from a tavern. The Gentlemen's Magazine explains, "It took its name from the circumstance that everyone drew lots as to what should be his or her share of the entertainment. The club consisted exclusively of leaders of fashion including the Prince of Wales, Lady Buckinghamshire, the Duke of Queensberryn, Lady Salisbury and many others."

"¢ Perhaps no proper picnic can be complete without the Picnic Boat, currently owned by both Martha Stewart and ... Geraldo. But be wary of picnics by the water ... you may run into errant wildlife.

"¢ From Claudia Roden, author of Everything Tastes Better Outdoors, "The pleasures of outdoor food are those that nature has to offer, as ephemeral as they are intense. A bird will sing his song and fly away, leaves will flutter and jostle the sunlight for a brief second—sky, flowers, and scents have each their small parts to play in the perfect happiness of those enchanted moments. They serve, as Jean Jacques Rousseau said, to 'liberate the soul.'"

"¢ Ah, the picnic. What are some of your favorite things to pack in your basket?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.