to picnic or not to picnic?

“If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics?” ~ Marie Dressler

“Tuscan Picnic” by Janet Kruskamp”

What a nice day for a picnic! Let’s pack our hampers full of delectable goodies to eat and drink, drive out to the beautiful, unspoiled countryside, and have a grand time.

Or maybe not.

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“Picnic at the Eiffel Tower” by Carole Foret

 

SO MANY THINGS CAN RUIN A PICNIC
by Faith Shearin

So many things can ruin a picnic—
mosquitoes, for instance, arriving
in a gray hum or black flies or a wind
strong enough to blow napkins
over the lawn like white butterflies,
steaks stolen by dogs, unruly fire,
thunderstorms that come on suddenly,
clouds converging over a field,
where you have just unpacked
your basket. It’s amazing, really,
that people have picnics at all
considering how many plates
have fallen in the dirt and how many
hot dogs have erupted in black blisters,
how many children have climbed hills
alive with poison ivy and how much ice
has melted before the drinks
were ever poured. It’s amazing
how many people still want to eat
on a blanket anyway, are still willing
to take their chances, to endure
whatever may fall or bite. Either they
don’t consider the odds of success
or they don’t care. Some of them
must not mind the stains on their pants,
the heavy watermelon that isn’t sweet
once it’s carved. Some must understand
the way lightning is likely to strike
an open field. Even so—they wrap up
a few pieces of fried chicken, fold
a tablecloth until it is as small as hope.
They carry an umbrella or a jacket
that they accidentally drop on the ground
where it fills with bees. They leave
the houses they built to keep them safe
and eat uncovered, ignoring the thunder,
their egg salad growing dangerously hot.

~ from Telling the Bees (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2015)

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“Holyday/The Picnic” by James Tissot (ca. 1876)

Picnics always sound like a good idea. They carry our perpetual idealism, a daydream of unfettered leisure, a fantasy of escape. But of course there are perils, as this poem describes. I think that might be part of their appeal — the risk of disaster is worth the price of a good time.

“A Picnic” by Henry O’Neil (1857)

I love the romance of picnics (much as I love the romance of trains). This might be related to my love of all things British, and picnics are certainly a British institution.

I especially love how the Victorians championed picnics. This is interesting considering England’s reputation for grey skies, prevailing damp and constant drizzle. This devil-may-care attitude about the weather was charmingly reckless of them don’t you think? 🙂

When it came to picnics, they didn’t fool around. Forget anemic chicken drumsticks and hard boiled eggs; they packed serious provisions to fortify themselves. Check out this picnic menu from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management:

“A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 2 veal and ham pies… 2 cold cabinet puddings, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold Christmas pudding (this must be good), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 sponge cakes, a tin of mixed biscuits.”

They certainly didn’t go hungry. And I admire how they used real silverware and china. The paper goods we use these days are certainly convenient, but somehow it’s just not the same.

Love this folding table set up. So civilized!

Whether you’re old school or not, there’s a picnic just for you.

Fancy an intimate tête-à-tête?

Or a jolly couples outing (ooh-la-la the skinny dipping)?

“Picnic” by Harold Williamson
“In the Blue Gums’ Azure Shade-An Australian Bush Picnic” by Fortunino Matania (ca. 1920’s)

Picnics are a godsend, a welcome respite if you’ve been out, you know, hunting:

from The Hunting Book of Gaston Phoebus, 15th century

They can also involve a large number of people, as in extended family or community picnics. Love those potluck feasts!

“Family Picnic” by Linda Anderson (1992)

Sometimes picnics morph into cook-outs,

and if you’re lucky, there’s musical entertainment.

“The Pic-Nic” by Thomas Cole (1846)

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like men picnickers have a better time of it (guess who’s on the menu?).

“Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) by Edouard Manet (1863)

But whether in a park, the woods, or by a lake, a picnic enables us to hone the fine art of lollygagging, the perfect accompaniment to enjoying invigorating rations en plein air. I am most reminded of this whenever I reread my favorite picnic scene in children’s literature:

Wind in the Willows by Arthur Rackham (1940)

‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkins
saladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeat
gingerbeerlemonadesodawater –’

‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’

Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously. ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it VERY fine!’

~ Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows, 1908)

Wind in the Willows by Michael Hague (1980)

Maybe it all comes down to this:

Pessimists = anti-picnic

Optimists = pro-picnic

Jama = pro-picnic if Colin Firth is bringing pie 🙂

Sophie Blackall

How do you feel about picnics, and what’s your ideal picnic menu?

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The lovely and talented Violet Nesdoly is hosting the Roundup this week. Be sure to breeze on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere. Fall picnic this weekend? 🙂


Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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51 thoughts on “to picnic or not to picnic?

  1. Love the quote at the beginning about ants! And naturally I concur with you on when to be “pro” picnic! :–). Ideal menu: hot chocolate if it’s cold; cold iced tea if it’s hot, and unexpected food to make it more special!

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  2. Colin Firth AND pie? That’s a really decadent picnic 🙂 The illustration at the top of this page gives me such a blast of nostalgia as I grew up in the Cornish countryside, and sometimes went for picnics on my pony, through the narrow lanes and the wild flowers. I love this poem too with its allegory of life; how we keep on trying despite disasters, hoping to be blessed with those moments when the sun shines physically and metaphorically. Great post!

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    1. I’ve always dreamed of visiting Cornwall — lucky you! I like picturing you on your pony. I do think Colin would be the perfect picnic guest. As Mr. Darcy, he would bring a proper hamper. As Mark Darcy, he could bring scrambled eggs, and as King George VI, he could ask his servants to wait on us. 🙂

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  3. Yes, yes, and yes! I’m always in favor of a picnic. All those disasters just become fun stories to tell once it’s over. It’s funny how those tales grow with each retelling, too. After reading this delightful poem and viewing all those delicious pictures, I’m already plotting how I can pull off a picnic on my visit to England and the Lake District next spring (probably March when it’s sure to be cold and damp). I don’t think I will pack china in my luggage, so paper goods will have to do!

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    1. Sigh — the Lake District in the Spring!! I’ll squeeze myself real small and stow away in your suitcase. 🙂 You’re right about picnic disasters making funny stories in retrospect. When I was growing up, most of our picnics occurred near the beach. A hibachi was usually involved and my Dad’s ice chest.

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  4. The girls and I just picnicked in my garden last week. We brought the sandwiches and chips, but several kinds of cookies, and of course, lemonade. We could have had lunch inside, but this was so much more fun–sunshine, birds, squirrels looking on, hoping for a dropped bit! Thanks for this, Jama. The Wind In The Willows touches my heart! Hope a few autumn picnics are on your calendar! The poem is marvelous, that egg salad ending especially!

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    1. How wonderful to have a picnic with your grandgirls, Linda. I can imagine their excitement. Somehow food tastes better outside — as long as the bugs are kept in check. This post prompted me to reread parts of The Wind in the Willows. Beautiful writing, which I never tire of.

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  5. My favorite picnic was on the lawn at the BSO in the Berkshires. Seiji Ozawa was conducting. I had a lawn chair, ham sandwiches and bottle of icy water. But I wouldn’t have turned away Colin Firth and pie.

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  6. What is “potted meat”? (From Rat’s list of picnic treats.) Canned tuna? Deviled ham? I’ll take a plain old peanut butter and jelly sandwich (on rye).

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    1. When we had picnics in England during my childhood, we’d make sandwiches with little glass pots (jars) of meat paste. The jars had various colors of metal lids depending on the type of meat they contained (ham, liver etc). I suppose it was like a poor man’s pate. Maybe this is what Rat packed?

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    2. Yes, I think Troon has it right. That’s what I thought of as potted meat. I guess deviled ham would be the closest thing we have in the U.S. . . . although sometimes you find these odd things in holiday gift baskets. 🙂

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  7. Even so—they wrap up
    a few pieces of fried chicken, fold
    a tablecloth until it is as small as hope.

    Jama–these lines made me cry, in a good way. Such a powerful and poignant poem. It feels like the world we’re living in a messy picnic, and the act of gathering together, the small kindnesses we share, are the hope.

    Thanks for brightening my day. Your picnic post is a work of art too 🙂 ❤

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    1. Those lines gave me pause too, Maria. Along with being optimistic, humans have the capacity to cling to hope, no matter how small. Your analogy to the world situation today is a good one — a huge messy picnic is what we face on a daily basis. Yet there is that in us that presses on, taking what bits of sunlight and smooth sailing we can grab along the way.

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  8. I loved “fold/a tablecloth until it is as small as hope,” too. ❤ I love a picnic, as long as I have the energy for it, because by and large I do not do by halves. Must have all the food, all the gear.

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    1. It’s ironic that picnics are meant to be a leisurely pursuit, no fussing with washing dishes afterwards, etc. — but in reality they require more planning and sometimes packing stuff up doesn’t appeal to me — Perhaps “picnic” is more a state of mind — something that can be achieved indoors on occasion.

      Just remembered a poignant story my half-sister (who used to cook for the stars) shared with me years ago about Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner:

      “One of the funniest meals I ever did was for Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder, and their tennis group, i.e., the Carl Reiners, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, the Dom Deluises, and the Dick Van Pattens. Gilda was in-between chemo treatments, and was feeling very good and she decided she wanted to celebrate by having a picnic. The caveat being she really didn’t like to eat outdoors because of the bugs and all. I suggested we have it right in her living room, by clearing the furniture and setting picnic cloths down on the floor and having everyone eat on the floor. She loved the idea, and I remember doing that, but I don’t remember if everyone stayed seated on the floor for the entire meal. The group was a very active, fun-loving group and whenever they got together they loved to do charades. You can imagine how hilarious things got when these peers were “on” for the benefit of the group.”

      Sigh, miss both Gene and Gilda now . . .

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  9. It’s amazing
    how many people still want to eat
    on a blanket anyway, are still willing
    to take their chances, to endure
    whatever may fall or bite.

    My sister just had her 50th birthday party… a large outdoor picnic with burgers on the grill, cake, cloth covered tables with white and gold net runners, bouquets of sunflowers in glass jars… and me thinking, “Good grief, has she not seen how hot it is? And is that a wind picking up? And there are yellow jackets everywhere…” She did indeed have to reschedule in the midst of that state-wide heatwave we had over Labor Day weekend, and when we reconvened, it was indeed far too breezy for her fancy table settings to not get flung into the dirt, but… people arrived at eleven and stayed til almost six. People laughed and wore ridiculous fancy dress and wished each other well.

    We are looking, it seems, for reasons to be optimistic, to be hopeful for a future (note I said “a” not “the;” nothing is quite so mundane and assured as “the” suggests) and for a reason to celebrate things that haven’t changed; the yellow jackets, the frisky breeze when you don’t want it, the susurus of pine needles against the shrieks of children running in circles and screaming for no particular reason. Long live picnics, amen.

    And now, a couple more picnic pics for you, this swanky little ‘do from 1936, by Archibald J. Motley, Jr., and this lovely ladies only afternoon from Shuntei Miyawawa (1873-1914) called “Picnic,” and the most recent one I could find by Cyril Maza, which I love because it’s so colorful. Enjoy!

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    1. Wow, what a comment! Loved hearing about your sister’s b-day picnic. Despite the little annoyances, it was a success because the essence of picnics is the gathering of loved ones, just being together. Everything else falls away. You’re so right about our need to be reassured about things that’ll never change — sometimes in these dark days of rolling back and repealing everything, one wonders whether we’ll even be “allowed” to have outdoor picnics anymore, whether we’ll indeed have “a” future we can reckon with.

      Thanks for sharing more picnic pics! That first one is pretty high stylin’ (they KNOW how to party!). The second one made me smile because the Japanese are usually portrayed as so reserved, but in that pic they are properly yucking it up. 🙂 And yes, the last one is cheerfully colorful and vibrant. It’s nice to see some multi-ethnic picnics.

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  10. I’m pro-picnic for sure! The poem by Faith Shearin certainly reminded me of all that can go wrong but I never think of those things.

    A picnic that involves grilling/outdoor cooking is even better. As a child and as an adult my family has had a lot of picnics in what we called the “high country.” Which means we all climb into the jeep/s and drive high into the mountains where four-wheel drive is necessary. Then we either fish for lunch or have steaks along. Either way, there are shredded potatoes, crisply fried, to go along with the meal. And sometimes corn on the cob! My mouth is watering just thinking of it. The fish we catch are trout and there’s nothing better than fried trout when it’s fresh!

    Thanks for sharing this. All of the art was delightful. Loved Sophie Blackall’s piece!

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    1. Wow, thanks for sharing about your family’s picnics in the high country! You must have a stash of great memories about those. And talk about eating fresh fish! Mmmmm to the shredded potatoes and corn on the cob too.

      You are obviously a born optimist — I sensed that before from your online persona. Why dwell on what could go wrong beforehand when a new adventure beckons?

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  11. What an enchanting and lovely post Jama, not to mention mouth-watering too! I’m definitely on the pro-picnic side, although this time of year is hit or miss with the pesky bees, maybe we need some screens to keep them out. I’m impressed with the eloquence of the British picnics and their optimistic attitude towards them. Lovely images and photos too, thanks for all!

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    1. Good to hear you are pro-picnic, Michelle. Too bad there aren’t designated bee-free zones especially for picnickers. 🙂 The British were really something with their eloquent picnics. The upper class had it especially good with their cook and servants making sure there was ample food and that everything was served smoothly.

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  12. Love the poem, which seems to be about much more than picnics. Also love the Wind in the Willows excerpt and blog header.

    I don’t even like to eat on a patio anymore. Don’t like the bees and mosquitoes bothering me and I have to stay out of the sun. And don’t even think about sitting on the hard ground! Hmm, maybe if I had takeout and servants and a nice table and chairs? Nope, there’s still the insects and sun.

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    1. I hear you, Barb. In my dotage I can’t abide mosquitoes (who really LOVE to bite me) or the sun (I’ve lost all my Hawaii sun tolerance). I do like picnic food, though — and as you mentioned, wouldn’t mind a bit if I had servants to wait on me. 🙂

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  13. Just too delightful, Jama! You have assembled the most amazing collection of picnic photos and illustrations I’ve ever seen! What always intrigues me about picnics in picture books and photo albums is how the people dressed up for them–men in suits and women in dresses with puffed sleeves and frills to the neck (except for the Manet woman who shed hers somewhere, I guess). I am definitely pro-picnic, especially if Rat is in charge of the menu!

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    1. It’s so much fun to see those old pics where people are dressed so formally for picnics. How things have changed! Ratty was definitely a good picnicker. 🙂

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  14. I participated in a picnic just a few weeks ago–a vegan birthday potluck for a friend. The weather was beautiful and the company good!

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  15. Definitely pro picnic….with a blanket or beach towel serving as the table cloth folded small as hope. A fun and lovely visit to your blog today

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  16. I love that picnics can be a metaphor for life:

    “It’s amazing
    how many people still want to eat
    on a blanket anyway, are still willing
    to take their chances, to endure
    whatever may fall or bite. Either they
    don’t consider the odds of success
    or they don’t care.”

    My favorite picnic is for Shakespeare in the Park. Our menu is all Whole Foods, and I always choose the curry turkey salad. We get crispy chocolate covered cookies, too — ONLY for these occasions and never any other time, so they are really special!

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    1. Yum! I’m sure Shakespeare would approve of your picnic menu. *makes a note to check out the crispy chocolate covered cookies at WF* 🙂

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  17. We are MAD about picnics at our house, Jama. One of our favorite picnic goodness sources of inspiration is Crabtree & Evelyn’s Cookbook: A Book of Light Meals and Small Feasts. You must try the Crunchy Lemon Syrup Cake and spread a layer of raspberry jam on the cake before assembling. Perfect picnic fare! Here’s a link to the recipe on someone’s blog post — http://www.juliasbookbag.com/2014/04/lemon-syrup-cake.html

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  18. Great picnic art! I grew up in L.A. and we had picnics on the beach, where sand was often on the menu, giving a whole new meaning to the word “sandwich.” Sandwiches, potato chips, and grape soda—those seem like picnic food in my somewhat foggy memories of childhood. And my mom always brought apples or grapes, which were (and still are) her definition of dessert.

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  19. Hot egg salad really does sound dangerous. I recently re-read Wind in the Willows (audio, this time), so it was fun to see the illustration you shared here. Rat and Mole talk about food an awful lot! My favorite is the Christmas scene in Mole’s old house.

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    1. I remember taking egg salad sandwiches or tuna sandwiches for lunch on field trips and no one seemed worried about the mayonnaise exposure to warm temperatures. Luckily I never got sick, but today we’re much smarter about these things. No insulated lunch bags when I was growing up.

      I love all the talk about food in Grahame’s book!

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  20. Pro-picnic, but not much of imaginative cook. The picnic menu from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was outrageous! I’d love to be a guest at that type of picnic! Thanks for a touch of outdoor optimism. =)

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    1. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Beeton’s picnic menu was meant for domestic help to prepare, transport, and serve. Like you, I wouldn’t want to make all that food but wouldn’t mind being a picnic guest. 🙂

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  21. I love this post. Your collection of paintings and photos would make a book all on its own. I would like to go on the record as being fully pro-picnic. But how true it is that so many things can ruin one. I never really thought about a picnic as a triumph of hope before. Must go on more picnics.

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    1. Thanks, Ruth — good to know you’re pro-picnic. Before I read this poem, I hadn’t thought of picnics as “a triumph of hope” either. This is why everyone needs to read more poetry. 🙂

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  22. The picnic! As a child it was baloney sandwiches with mustard and lemonade. It was in the park, the backyard, or at the beach. I still like to do it with grandkids as simple as it might be. I love eating outdoors in the warm weather. I think I picnic alone most warm mornings with coffee, a piece of cheese and dill crackers!! Long live the picnic. There are picnics in heaven, right?!

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    1. Thanks for the lovely comment which made me smile :). Sometimes the simplest of foods taste best. Minimum preparation, maximum enjoyment. There must be picnics in heaven — angel food cake?

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