PIC - nic (noun) 1: an excursion or outing with food usually provided by members of the group and eaten in the open; also: the food provided for a picnic 2a: a pleasant or amusingly carefree experience; b: an easy task or feat
-- From Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 11th Edition
Back in the early days of humanity, every meal was a picnic, according to Merriam-Webster's first definition. Hunter-gatherers and nomads carried food along and ate outside all the time. But as the dictionary implies with its second entry, not every outdoor meal can be called a picnic. A picnic implies recreation, a leisurely meal where dining al fresco is part of an aesthetic experience. As such, picnics couldn't evolve until eating outdoors became a novelty and people had enough leisure time to enjoy it.
References note the first usage of the French term "pique-nique" in the 16th or 17th century, likely among the classes targeted by the French Revolution decades later. The term apparently refers to a gathering akin to a modern potluck dinner, where everyone brings along some food and "picks" and chooses from among the offerings. By the early 1800s, the word -- and the activity -- had migrated to American shores, right in step with the Industrial Revolution.
A quick perusal of any upscale housewares retailer shows that the art of picnicking is alive and well. Well-appointed wicker picnic baskets, complete with china, silver, glassware and accessories, still hold a spot among traditionalists. The image of the wicker basket laden with elegant treats and crisp ginghams resonates with the images of easy summer living made popular by painters like Frank Benson and Childe Hassam at the turn of the last century. A British company, Picnic at Ascot, makes a top-of-the-line wicker basket that comes filled with four Italian ceramic plates, oversized cotton napkins, wine glasses, stainless steel flatware, a brushed stainless steel coffee service, a picnic blanket with carrier, an insulated wine holder, two food containers, spill-proof salt and pepper shakers, a cutting board and a cheese knife -- more accoutrements than in many kitchens.
For more practical-minded picnickers, several vendors have come out with convenient picnic backpacks. These insulated canvas carriers hold all the necessary implements in a zip-up unit that leaves hands free along the journey. The insulation keeps cool foods chilled until serving time, and the padded fabric is easier on shoulders, hands and backs. Most backpacks will hold a bottle or two of wine, but specialized wine carriers deliver just enough space for the perfect wine-and-cheese outing, wherever your travels take you.
And a quick digression for fresh-air wine lovers: If you forget to pack the corkscrew, don't despair. In-town picnickers can just trot over to Huckleberry's and visit the wine department, where wine specialist Lou Anne Moxcey will be happy to help. For picnic fare, she recommends fruity whites and uncomplicated reds, "but nothing that has to be decanted." Laughing, she adds, "I usually don't know they're having a picnic unless they've forgotten the corkscrew."
And don't turn up your nose at wines just because they're sealed with a screw-top; while corks have a long history in wine-making, a handful of quality wineries have switched over to screw-top bottles for ease of use. In this class, Moxcey gives honorable mention to Ca' del Solo Big House Red and Big House White -- wines meant for simple cuisine, with no corkscrew required.
Technology now allows us to carry extravagant meals to parks or hilltops, and there's something to be said for the contrast between the rustic outdoors and the elegance of fine china. But what's a picnic really all about anyway? Is the point to outdo the neighbors and impress your companions with your elegance and panache? Or is it to gather with friends, relax in the great outdoors and break bread together? If it's the second, then all you need is a tote bag and a blanket. Sure, the insulated bags help keep foods safe and the backpacks are easy to carry, but a lack of these latest high-tech picnic aids is no excuse to not seize the day.
In fact, despite Merriam and Webster, you don't even have to go outside to have a picnic. One of the joys of picnicking is the break from routine, the novelty of eating someplace other than the kitchen table. If the weather is inclement or just plain hot, how about picnicking on the living room floor? Or why not set a table on the front porch? Either way, it'll create a fun memory -- and "a pleasant or amusingly carefree experience."
Picnic backpacks are available locally at Joel and Cook's Dream.
Publication date: 07/10/03