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  • Kate Hanfling, Volunteer

#National Picnic Day: Picnicking in Colonial America

Though the concept of the American picnic as we know it today only dates back to the 19th century, picnics in some form have been around for much longer. The earliest European gatherings (that we really know of) date back to 14th century European hunting feasts that were eaten out of doors before the chase began. You might also think of Robin Hood and his merry men enjoying bread, cheese, and ale and relaxing in the forest. The word 'picnic' is first recorded in English in the 18th century, but appears in French in the 17th, “piquenique,” from the verb “piquer” to prick or peck and “nique” a diminutive. “Piquenique” literally means a little peck.

There are many different cultural gatherings employed around the world that are similar to the European ‘picnic’ idea. Potlatches, gatherings in Canada by the indigenous people, often featured large amounts of food and people coming together. The purpose of a Potlatch was a display of wealth and an opportunity to both give and boast gifts. Hunting feasts are held in many cultures, often focusing on a celebration of the catch or hunting party’s success with game. While they may not go by the term 'picnic', they certainly involve the typical key ingredients: people, outdoor gathering, food, and fun!

Bruegel - The Harvesters (1565) and Monet - luncheon on the grass (1866-1867)

Fast forward a bit in history and you see the picnic come into its own during the Victorian era in England where formal garden parties were popular, and post-revolutionary France when suddenly the public was allowed into formerly royal or private parks. Dickens and Austen both wrote about picnics in their novels, and if you turn your eye to impressionist painting in France, you find picnics as a subject in Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, and Seurat to name a few. As we move forward into the mid 1800’s, we find the picnic becoming a term used throughout many cultures here in America to refer to a special gathering or time of celebration outdoors featuring food, fun, and good company.

Picnics have not always been accessible to those of lower classes due to socioeconomic status and access to public recreational areas. A good example of this is evidenced in this article, published by the Virginia Gazette in 2019. African Americans faced enslavement, then segregation, both of which inhibited their ability to participate in this enjoyable picnicking practice. Enslaved individuals and servants may have prepared the food for wealthy colonial picnickers, but they most likely seldom enjoyed picnics of their own. During segregation and even after it, African Americans were not given fair access to spaces in which they could enjoy a picnic, just as the article describes. Despite these social and cultural challenges, African Americans endeavored to create their own spaces for picnics and gatherings.

All this to say: American colonial picnics were... not really a thing. The idea of a leisurely meal outdoors with friends or family was more of a European activity at the time, and even then not quite in the form that we know it today. Still, the idea of gathering together with family or friends to eat is definitely a tradition that transcends cultures and connects individuals from all over the world.

So then, with no actual 18th century American picnic tradition to call upon, what should you prepare? We recommend simple foods that travel well and that would have been attainable in the 18th century. Let’s start with your main course: why not try a pie? Handheld meat or vegetable pies travel very well and were a common to-go option in the 18th century. The Townsends YouTube channel is a wealth of information about 18th century life and they have a recipe for a Standing Crust Meat Pie to inspire you. If you're feeling a bit less ambitious, a ready made pie crust folded in half and baked with your favorite filling inside will do just as well. This idea works well for dessert too!

For a side, perhaps keep it simple and go with fresh fruits and vegetables. New potatoes, green garlic, and scallions are in season now, so maybe prepare a potato salad? Boil the potatoes until easily pierced, cut into bite sized pieces, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, the chopped scallions and garlic and enjoy! A salad is always a nice treat, and there are plenty of native wild edibles to dot your greens at this time of year. Throw in some violets for a pop of color, or some bittercress for a tang. If you’re not in the mood to cook, some carrots and hummus, nuts, fruit, granola bars, crackers and cheese, etc. are all great options.

What about dessert? If you’re not excited about another hand pie, hit your local farmer’s market and pack up some fresh favorites like apples, grapes, or whatever you love to snack on. Nuts, dried fruits, or granola bars are other great options. In 18th century America, desserts often included fruits and nuts, as they were accessible to many regardless of social status and left the palette refreshed.

Granted, some of these ideas aren’t as authentic as the others, but your picnic can be as fancy, simple, old fashioned, or modern as you want it to be. In any case, enjoy it!

Mr. Bolton, Charity, and Alice enjoy a meal together

However you decide to feast at the park, we ask that you do so responsibly. Please keep yourselves healthy and maintain your distance from other guests. Properly dispose of your meal by bringing reusable supplies if possible and, if you do have disposable items, use the trash cans provided at the park. Be sure to let us know your go-to picnic ideas and foods! Send us pictures or just let us know in the comments and tag us with #nationalpicnicday. Happy picnicking!

For more historical info on picnics, check out these resources

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