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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

Today's picnics owe a toast to the past

BY RHONDA B. SEWELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ben and Angie Swanson wait for other guests to arrive for a picnic at Wildwood Preserve Metropark earlier this summer. Ben and Angie Swanson wait for other guests to arrive for a picnic at Wildwood Preserve Metropark earlier this summer.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

This Labor Day weekend, many families will enjoy eating outdoors, in their own backyard, a friend's yard, or in a local park.

And in doing so, they are carrying on a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

In the late 17th century in France, "potluck" parties were becoming increasingly popular, says Sheri Fiegehen. These parties were the precursor of outdoor picnics.

"Just like today's potluck meals, the guests would each bring a small amount of food, like one dish, and everyone would share, taking bits and pieces from each dish," said Ms. Fiegehen, of Millbrook, Ontario, author of "Picnics: From Crystal to Plastic" in the current edition of History Magazine, a Toronto-based publication.

"Back then, they were typically small gatherings, and weren't necessarily held outdoors," she added.

According to the Web site www.picnic-ideas.com, it wasn't until almost 200 year later that picnics became synonymous with an outdoor meal.

According to the site (and Ms. Fiegehen agrees), most likely "the word picnic is based on the French verb piquer, which has the same Latin root as the English word 'pick.' In French, piquer is to 'pick' or 'peck.' It rhymes with the pronunciation of nique, meaning 'small' or 'morsel,' which would make sense, as rhyming prose was very popular in France during that era."

Ms. Fiegehen said that the picnic custom was started in the early 1800s by the British, and it was quite different from the earlier French "potluck" version.

Maritza Santiago grills the food at a Ponce family picnic held at Walbridge Park on Memorial Day. Maritza Santiago grills the food at a Ponce family picnic held at Walbridge Park on Memorial Day.
Enlarge

"Instead of being potluck, the host provided all the food and drink. The events were held outdoors on estate properties, parks, the woods, gardens, with lots of guests," she said, adding that servants would prepare and serve the meals, using the finest china, silver, crystal, and linens.

"In those days, the fancier the better."

Ms. Fiegehen added that there could be up to 35 different dishes, including a variety of meats such as pork, lamb, duck, veal, beef, and salads, vegetables, fruits, cakes, and cheeses, as well as wine and champagne.

"And, being British, they loved their tea, which was made by boiling water on a portable kerosene burner," she said.

In the 1800s, a publication by well-known etiquette expert Isabella Beetin, Book of Household Management (original publication, 1861), states that a proper picnic should consist of 35 different dishes.

Ms. Fiegehen said that unlike today's more laid-back picnics, during this period of the 1800s there were certain codes of picnic behavior . "For instance, ladies were not to be expected to hold their parasols while eating . . . also, recreation was a requirement of the day, such as collecting flowers, sketching, and playing croquet. In the San Francisco area in the early 1900s, some picnic spots had jugglers, gymnasts, and dance pavilions," she said.

Frank Freeman, in an article published in RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities (2004 edition), states that during the early days of the Civil War, elegant picnics were held on bluffs overlooking the battlefields. "So that onlookers could watch the mayhem through their binoculars while sipping cider and eating fried chicken," he said.

Over the past 100 years, picnics have become less elaborate and more casual.

"With today's busy lifestyles, it is simply easier to pop into the grocery store, grab some ready-made food, drinks, and paper plates, chuck them into a cooler, and head off in the car," said Ms. Fiegehen, adding that if she were wealthy and had a team of servants, she would want a more "fancy-shmancy" picnic.

Kathy Hooker, owner of Essential Gourmet, said although modern-day picnics have become far more casual events than those held in the 1800s, this does not limit the creativity of the meal or picnic accessories.

"Fondue is very popular and so is grilling at picnics, especially with the cedar grilling planks . . . people are more homebodies today, but the park still gets very crowded with picnics, especially during the Labor Day weekend; it's the last big hoorah," said Mrs. Hooker, who added that more romantic picnics in contemporary times call for fancier meals such as quiche and champagne, served on fine china.

Long gone are the servants and more than 30 elaborate dishes, but as Ms. Fiegehen says, the modern picnic in its many forms, from romantic to casual, carries on the rich tradition of the pleasure of dining in nature and enjoying the company of others:

"We live out in the country, so sometimes we will go on a picnic-hike. We'll pack up a backpack and cooler bag with some crusty bread, Brie, raspberry jam, sausage slices, and wine - we even have some funky plastic wine glasses - and head out to the trails in the woods.

"There is a river running through the woods, so we'll stop on one of the little wooden bridges and have our picnic, watching and listening to the water flow by."

Contact Rhonda B. Sewell at: rsewell@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.



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