Journey Of The Picnic: From French Parlours To Idyllic Outdoors
Image Credit: In modern contexts of nuclear families and regimented city life, picnics may seem a farfetched luxury. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into,” as Enid Blyton penned these words in Five Go Off in a Caravan, you’d always find yourself tiptoeing to the kitchen at the wee hours of dawn, salivating and hungry to satiate that oddly-timed grubbiness. Many pre-teen years were spent devouring Blyton’s unabashed love of outdoor culinary celebrations for the child in me to not fall in love with picnics. As The Famous Five or Five Find-Outers launched one investigation after the other, their journeys would hardly be impactful without their love for mystery, thrill and food. Whether it be fresh radishes, and lightly salted tomatoes downed with glasses of iced ginger ale during summer afternoons, or even thinly silenced ham, tucked away neatly in a lettuce sandwich for a midnight adventure, Blyton’s literature heroes the concept of communal eating as part of English country lifestyle. 

In modern contexts of nuclear families and regimented city life, picnics may seem a farfetched luxury. However, the recent pandemic altered this theory and brought about significant changes to the food industry and global consumption patterns. With social distancing and a need to remain within private spaces, many foodaholics shifted towards niche concepts like luxury picnics. Elaborate place settings adorned with candlesticks and flowers were the main attractions of these outdoor fiestas, enjoyed by thousands in the US, especially between 2020-2023. Local restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs began ideating small, personal lunches where each guest could enjoy fine dining along with the childlike innocence of going for an outdoor picnic. Companies began marketing offerings like expensive champagne, charcuterie plates, and macaron towers, beautifully served inside heated bubble tents (for winters) or under fringed umbrellas (for the summer heat). 

Even though picnics may well become an extinct concept once Generation Beta takes over the planet, we can still talk about the feel-good childhood practices that bring an unwarranted giggle. The concept of picnics seems to have had a rich history associated with it. Though there may be considerable debate about the nomenclature behind the word, the closest references equate it to two French terms. The verb ‘piquer’ means “to peck” or “to pick” and the noun 'nique' refers to “a small amount” or “nothing at all.” But there is no literal translation of the word in terms of etymology. The earliest mention of the term was in a 1649 French burlesque satire titled Les Charmans effects des barricades, ou l’amité durable de la compagnie des freres Bachiques de Pique-Nique. In an attempt to write a biting commentary on the duality of the Fronde (which was a revolt against French absolutism), the anonymous author placed his main character Pique-Nique as a comical hero. In charge of his barricades, Pique-Nique was infamous for his gargantuan appetite, in turn, making him the biggest flounderer of his own movement. In fact, the actual act of “picnic-ing together” was an extremely esoteric tradition among the French aristocracy. They would hold indoor parties where each member was expected to contribute his share. Music, dancing and theatre were an integral part of these flamboyant shows where witty conversations flowed seamlessly along with the bounty of wine and food. 

With the breakout of the French Revolution, however, Europe’s sociopolitical canvas underwent a drastic change. Rich French picnickers scrambled their way to safety and found refuge in countries like the US, Austria, the UK or even erstwhile Prussia. Their journeys beyond French borders made the Francophiles adventurous to the point that 200 of them developed what they called a “Pic Nic Society” in London. These “gatherings” were much more raucous than refined, with enthusiastic patrons trying desperately to best the other with garish themes and extravagant culinary delights. Another, more intense change that picnics underwent was that the working middle classes promptly took to it. Probably as an aspirational move, they wanted to emulate the French aristocracy’s way of communal celebrations with food. The only change brought about by the ordinary work-a-dayers was the bucolic setting in which they chose to host these picnics. The advent of the Industrial Revolution ensured better railways and smoother transportation. This enabled city workers to get away on day trips to the suburbs, let off steam with loved ones, and feast on fresh meats and sweet treats. In literature too, these outdoor food traditions began making appearances with John Harris’ 1806 children’s book titled The Courtship, Merry Marriage, and Pic-Nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren or even Jane Austen’s 1816 novel Emma

Bowdlerisation apart, picnics have been a mainstay for many Middle Eastern food cultures as well. The Turkish tradition of sharing meals from a single, circular plate was seen as a symbol of brotherhood and a celebration of goodwill. Often, to commemorate important festivals and special days, men and women would gather around a ‘tandoor’ (a clay oven of sorts), soaking in all the smoky goodness along with succulent chunks of charred meat. This outdoor activity may well have been a conceptual forefather of the modern-day ‘picnic’. 

During the 20th century, these outdoor food customs began shaping a majority of the social canvas in primarily two countries – the US and Australia. With the resurgence of barbecue-ing post World War II, these two nations adapted the concept of picnics and blended it with outdoor barbecues, hiking trips and camping experiences. The perfect “family time” would, in fact, involve a weekend camping trip with picnic lunches and outdoor dinners around bonfires. 

Though green, secluded and idyllic settings may become rarer by the day, the luxury entertainment industry is not shying away. Retreat homes and resorts are now curating special picnic-like experiences for families and couples as part of tour packages and are encouraging people to opt for it. The childlike glee in laying the perfect checkered sheet and a huge wicker basket over green, lush grass on a winter morning is always unparalleled, no matter your age.