A Minor History Of Le Pique-Nique


Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, by Manet, Edouard.

Where the word ‘picnic’ comes from is something of a mystery but it is conjectured that the French root may derive from the verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) and the noun nique (‘a small amount’ or ‘nothing whatsoever’); but this is just speculation.

What is certain, however, is that, originally, it did not refer to anything we would now recognise as a picnic. A favourite pastime of the aristocracy, picnics came into their own during the 18th century they were enshrined as purely indoor affairs, held at home or in hired rooms. The guests could either bring a dish or drink or pay a share of the cost. They were associated with conversation and wit and portrayed as intellectual refinement.

And then along came the French Revolution and to put it bluntly, everything went pear shaped. Fearing for their lives, aristocratic picnickers fled abroad, some to Austria, others to Prussia while others even made it to America, while the majority plumped for Britain. Settling primarily in London, they were often short of money; but they did their best to maintain their old way of life, bringing the picnic to England with them. This led to two important developments.

In 1801 a group of 200 wealthy young Francophiles, founded the ‘Pic Nic Society’. Held in hired rooms in Tottenham Street, their gatherings were self-consciously extravagant. Every member was required to bring a dish (decided by lot) and six bottles of wine. Held in hired rooms in Tottenham Street, their gatherings were self-consciously extravagant. The society was short lived to be replaced by a more profound development.

Pic Nics were taken up by the emergent middle classes and moved outdoors. What caused this change is somewhat unclear; but the most likely explanation is that the socially aspirational simply applied a fashionable French word to a pre-existing practice. A result of all this was that picnicking became a simple meal to which people were invited by a host morphing into a more ‘genteel’ and more innocent leisure activity.

Mrs Beeton on the other hand, suggested in 1861 that a bill of fare for a picnic for 40 persons should include a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal‑and‑ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium‑sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf’s head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers, stewed fruit well sweetened, and put into glass bottles well corked, 3 or 4 dozen plain pastry biscuits to eat with the stewed fruit, 2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, 2 cold cabinet puddings in moulds, 2 blancmanges in moulds, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold plum‑pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, 3 dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, 6 lbs. of butter, including the butter for tea, 4 quartern loaves of household bread, 3 dozen rolls, 6 loaves of tin bread (for tea), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes, a tin of mixed biscuits, ½ lb, of tea. Beverages: 3 dozen quart bottles of ale, packed in hampers; ginger‑beer, soda‑water, and lemonade, of each 2 dozen bottles; 6 bottles of sherry, 6 bottles of claret, champagne a discretion, and any other light wine that may be preferred, and 2 bottles of brandy. Water can usually be obtained so it is useless to take it.

Things not to be forgotten at a Picnic would include a stick of horseradish, a bottle of mint‑sauce well corked, a bottle of salad dressing, a bottle of vinegar, made mustard, pepper, salt, good oil, and pounded sugar. If it can be managed, take a little ice. It is scarcely necessary to say that plates, tumblers, wine‑glasses, knives, forks, and spoons, must not be forgotten; as also teacups and saucers, 3 or 4 teapots, some lump sugar, and milk, if this last‑named article cannot be obtained in the neighbourhood. Oh, and finally, take 3 corkscrews.

The Wind in the Willows by Mendoza, Philip (1898-1973)

Kenneth Grahame, author of ‘The Wind in The Willows’, born this day in 1859 mentions in one of the classic scenes from the book the conversation between Mole and Ratty about the contents of a large wicker basket that Ratty had brought along :

‘There’s cold chicken inside it, coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssalad frenchrollscresssandwidgepottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater replied the Rat briefly.

Not a bad little repast for two small river creatures. Since the publication of Grahame’s tale, picnics have undergone still further change – largely as a result of the relaxation of social mores, the development of new technologies and the quickening pace of globalisation.

Today, olives, focaccia and white wine are more likely to be found in a picnic basket than cold tongue, cress sandwiches and ginger beer. So too, in the last few decades, novels such as Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997) have reconnected picnicking with moral transgression, albeit not quite as explicitly as in Manet’s painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Picnics will no doubt continue to evolve in future. If global warming continues to worsen, we may have to think more carefully about where – and how – we spread our blankets. By the same token, shifting patterns of trade will almost certainly change the foods we carry in our hampers. But, whatever happens, one thing is whatever happens, one thing is certain: as long as there are friends with whom to share it, there will be ‘few things so pleasant as a picnic lunch’.

Providing that social distancing is observed, naturally!

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