Lunch on the Grass (A Bite-Sized History of the Picnic)

picnic historical photo
From Michigan’s Copper Country in Early Photos (1977)

And night wears on; the village murmurs cease;
The earth seems dozing in the lap of peace;
The loiterers stroll home; with fond adieus
The lovers part as lovers fondly use;
And they that in the morning’s laughing eye
Went trooping forth, now tranced in slumber lie,
Or, gone with Mab and all her goblin band,
Partake a picnic in the faery land.
—Thomas Durfee, “The Village Picnic” (1915)

Much of what made life pleasurable is now gone. We must seek out what remains. The study of history and the arts, the cultivation of friendship and love (to the extent that the current situation permits it) — such solaces can keep despair at bay, or at least pass the hours until more normal conditions return. So too can prosaic solitary activities, like collecting wildflowers, swimming in ponds or the sea, and marking the shapes of scudding clouds. “Who do you love best,” Charles Baudelaire’s enigmatic man is asked. “I love the clouds, the clouds that pass, eternally, the marvelous clouds,” he answers. Even small pleasures fortify us against hardship ahead.

Picnicking with a few close (masked) friends and relations can be counted among such pleasures. Indeed, emphasis on enjoyment colors the very definition of the word “picnic”: an informal meal eaten outdoors solely for the fun of it. “Picnic” didn’t appear in the English lexicon until 1748, but before the word was the deed — committed for millennia, as it happens. The Greeks and the Romans feasted in sacred groves after rituals and hunts and hosted lavish banquets on the beach. For them even modestly provisioned picnics had their charms. The Roman philosopher Seneca often picnicked on bread and figs alone. That, he said, was like having a “New Year feast every day.”

Picnic Historical Children's Book Illustration
From The Children’s Picnic and Other Tales in Verse (1883)

 

Such austere meals notwithstanding, picnics of yore were more feast than fast. A meal eaten outdoors amid forest and field invigorated the appetites of an aristocracy used to more artificial environs. The French of the early modern period called them fête champêtre, or garden parties. Under the lindens of Versailles and among the jonquils of the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte armies of attendants served spitted warblers and other tidbits to lords and ladies, viscounts and baronesses. “There was a very good dinner, light refreshments … cards, hunting, everything scented with daffodils, everything magical,” wrote celebrated epistolist Mme de Sévigné of once such gathering. Only when the guillotine arrived to insinuate itself between the perfumed heads and pretty shoulders of elite picnickers did the gates of the royal parks open to admit common folk.

In Japan, the aristocracy similarly made an art of eating en plein air. In 1594, feudal lord and Imperial Minister Toyotomi Hideyoshi invited 5,000 people to a lavish picnic in honor of the famed cherry blossoms that adorned his city of Yoshino. The grounds he had enclosed with screens of gold leaf and curtains decorated by noted artists. Between the cherry trees were strung ropes so guests could hang their kimonos for all to see and to judge the most beautiful. And near the Buddhist temples he stationed watchmen called yama doshin to make sure no one desecrated the temple grounds by eating fish or fowl or playing raucous music. Hideyoshi’s picnic was a success, and he hosted many more like it, each more lavish than the one before.

picnic japan historical watercolor
Kiyonaga, Picnic Party (ca. 1745)

 

As the centuries passed, cherry blossom picnics went from aristocratic get-together to mass event. Yet they lost none of their splendor. The nineteenth century saw hundreds of revelers take to sumptuous houseboats. Along the Yodo River near Osaka they drifted, eating, drinking, and marveling at the blossoms. No longer content with showing off their finest kimonos, these picnickers wore elaborate disguises. Men dressed as women, and women men. Some transformed themselves into historical figures. The most eccentric wore coats of seaweed, which they nibbled as they hobnobbed and tippled. When they drank dry their casks they dressed them up too, fitting them with knit caps and coats. The drunken picnickers found these “cask dolls,” as they were called, acceptable dancing partners, and twirled them around to popular songs.

Such picnics were a blend of saturnalia and refinement. More subdued examples of outdoor license we find in 19th-century Britain. Fitting imperfectly the Victorian trinity of breakfast-lunch-dinner, a picnic could occasion droll inversions. For the whole of a sunny afternoon, picnics forced participants to forget the embroideries of class and circumstance. The social space created the moment a picnicker plunked her basket down hovered somewhere between bourgeois respectability and rustic abandon. As such, it often conjured into being strange tableaux. Dour matrons became like children as they held chicken legs and cheerfully gnawed away. Pompous patriarchs sipped lemonade and lolled in the grass like milkmaids. “The drowsy, well-fed” picnicking boarding students in the marvelous novel The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), were insulated from “natural contacts with earth, air, and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings, and kid boots,” making them “no more a part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.”

This Victorian sense of remove sometimes led to perversions of proximity. During the Crimean War (1853–1856) in which the Russians fought against the powers of the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom, Sardinia, and France, coveys of wealthy British tourists traveled by steamer and yacht to Sevastopol. They came to gawk at the battles, many of them having paid five pounds a head (about $188 in today’s money), with lodging and travel included, for the opportunity. On June 18, 1855 with picnic baskets and telescopes in hand, hundreds of these tourists sat from dawn to dusk and watched 5,000 French and British soldiers die as they attempted to breach the Russian line. “The ladies thoroughly enjoyed the fun,” noted a British captain. (And lest one think only the British delighted in such bloodsport, during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, the Washington elite came to picnic and watch 4,700 Americans die.)

Picnic Historical Victorian England illustrations
From Rivers of Great Britain, From Source to Sea (1891)

 

The callousness of Victorian elites aside, most picnics were innocent, happy events. They gave the overworked clerk or lady’s maid an excuse to escape the smog and crowds of the city, for one. They also complemented other fun happenings. Cricket matches, regattas, derby days — all occasioned the packing of the picnic basket. “All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad,” wrote Charles Dickens of the picnics at the 1851 Epsom Derby. Along with lobster salad, those hampers could contain any number of delicacies. Victorian doyen of domesticity Mrs. Beeton suggested veal cake, stewed fruit (in bottles well-corked), jam puffs, cabinet puddings, joints of beef, ribs of lamb, ham pies, tongue, even a “collared calf’s head.” But never coffee; that, she insisted, was too difficult to make outdoors.

Only once this year have I mustered enough enthusiasm to picnic; the chore of preparing sandwiches and salad, determining the best way to fortify them against wilt and spoilage, and then gulping everything down while being strafed by hornets and flies I find tiresome. But on my visits to state parks to hike and swim, I see plenty of couples and small families with wheeled coolers and bags of charcoal in tow. And as I hear them laugh and exclaim happily behind their masks, I see that the picnic does have the wondrous power to make you forget, at least for a short time, an exhausting present and the darkening future ahead. This alone makes me want to dig out my basket and give picnicking another go.

 

Cheese and Pineapple Sandwiches
From One Hundred Picnic Suggestions (1915)

Mix equal amounts of shredded pineapple, cream cheese, and pimento puree. Season with salt, cayenne, and curry-powder and soften with creamed butter. Spread on slices of thinly cut white bread, press each two slices together, trim, and wrap in waxed paper.

 

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