The Picnic-A Brief History & Musings

The Picnic-James Tissot

It is hot as blazes right now here in Pennsylvania, and we are spending most of our time in the air conditioning. I am not a fan of AC, but right now, it’s not an option. So, since  I am stuck inside for now, I got curious about the history of the picnic.

The origin of the word “picnic”according to Wikipedia is from the French “pique-nique” defined in 1692 as  bringing one’s own wine to a meal at a restaurant.  The first BYOB. It was also used to describe a meal where everyone brought a dish, now called the “potluck”. The verb “piquer” meaning to”to pick or peck”  and “nique” meaning “something of little importance”may be the origin for the word.

The picnic may also have had its roots in the meal served after hunting.  This was common in the Middle Ages, with some of the game being prepared as a feast after the hunt.  In fox hunting, the tradition of the hunt breakfast possibly has its roots in the Middle Ages after the hunt feast. This tradition continues, either as a potluck after the ride is done, or given at a hunt member’s home after the hunt.

François_lemoyne_-hunt breakfast
Hunt Breakfast-Francois Lemoyne

It wasn’t until the after French Revolution, when the royal parks became public parks, that the picnic as we know it came into being.  These open areas were now open to  everyone, and people began to pack meals and enjoy them in the outdoors. During the Victorian period, it was fashionable to have elaborate picnics served outside. This continued into the Edwardian era, as shown in several episodes of “Downton Abbey”.

In the USA, once the car became the primary source for transportation, many highways would have “picnic groves”. I still remember  going on car trips with my parents, and we would stop along the highway, pull the basket out of the car and find a table. These were usually in shady areas, sometime with a play ground for the kids to run themselves ragged until they had to get back into the car.


I have a two favorite memories of picnicking.

The first is going to concerts at the Garden State Arts Center (now the PNC Bank Arts Center) and we always bought lawn seats, aka the “cheap seats”. My friends and I would stop and get a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, with all of the fixings.  We would go early, get a good spot, and spread our blanket, ready to dive into our fast-food feast.

And it would start raining.  Pouring.  I swear, every time I bought lawn seats, I would get rained on. The chicken would always get wet. This happened so often, that I started referring to KFC as “sog fry”.  To this day, I will no longer buy lawn seats, because I KNOW I will get rained on. (Case in point, the last outdoor concert I was at, where I purchased tickets under the pavilion, it absolutely poured buckets. And I was NOT wet. Finally.)

My second memory is a treasured one. Where I grew up in New Jersey, the big event of the autumn season was the Far Hills Race Meeting. This was a day of steeplechase horse racing, and everyone that was anyone attended. My friends always came home from college that weekend to attend. My family had a parking space right at the finish line, and we always had a superb tailgate picnic.  Now when I say tailgate, I don’t mean your basic football tailgate. We are talking candelabra and centerpieces.Everyone wore something tweedy; the fashion was as important as the food. My Mom would spend several days preparing  different finger foods, plus invited guests to our space would also bring a dish. My Dad had a well stocked bar in the trunk of the car. It was one of my favorite days, filled with horses, friends and great food. I remember one time a woman who none of us knew walked up to our food table and just helped herself.  No one got upset, we just thought it was hilarious. Maybe she thought the food was part of the gate fee! There was always a friendly betting pool at each space, with most people picking their horse by the color of the jockey’s silks or by the horse’s name.

The photos above are taken in the mid 70’s. Check out those natty plaid jackets and pants! My parents, Bill and Betty are the couple on the right in the bottom right photo. My Dad especially loved this day.  Alas, we no longer have the space, and unfortunately, this event has become more of a college drunk fest than the classic event it used to be…

The picnic can be as simple as a  take-out meal with friends at a park to an elaborate catered affair. Many wedding receptions are now  rustic country-styled events with mason jar glasses and  picnic tables at a beautiful restored barn. Tailgate can be burgers and dogs at the parking lot of a football stadium or caviar and champagne at the classic car show.  It can be  a spontaneous lunch with co-workers or a gathering of church  or club members.

The one thing that any type of picnic shares is a meal with friends and family. It is a ritual that always brings people together.  A picnic is about food, sure, but it is really about people.  You can’t have a picnic without people.

So, get out that picnic basket, call your friends and family and go find a beautiful spot in nature. Enjoy good food and great company. Celebrate open spaces, feel the breeze from the sea, or listen to the birds providing the background music. Remember what grass feel like on bare feet. Get out the croquet set from the basement and have a tournament. Savor the smell of lighter fluid on charcoal. Toast those marshmallows until they are slightly burnt. Look for shapes in the clouds with your kids. Take some time to smell, hear, taste, see and feel everything around you. This is the true essence of the picnic.

Go and enjoy!

yogi bear
photo courtesy of Hanna Barbera & Warner Bros. Entertainment


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