A picnic is a meal taken outdoors (al fresco) as part of an excursion, especially in scenic surroundings, such as a park, lakeside, or other place affording an interesting view, or else in conjunction with a public event such as preceding an open-air theater performance, and usually in summer or spring. It is different from other meals because it requires free time to leave home.
History shows us that the idea of a meal that was jointly contributed to and enjoyed out-of-doors was essential to picnic from the early 19th century.
Picnickers like to sit on the ground on a rug or blanket. Picnics can be informal with throwaway plates or formal with silver cutlery and crystal wine glasses. Tables and chairs may be used but this is less common.
Outdoor games or some other form of entertainment are common at large picnics. In public parks, a picnic area generally includes picnic tables and possibly built-in grills, water faucets (taps), garbage (rubbish) containers, restrooms (toilets) and gazebos (shelters).
Some picnics are a potluck, where each person contributes a dish for all to share. The food eaten is rarely hot, instead taking the form of deli sandwiches, finger food, fresh fruit, salad and cold meats. It can be accompanied by chilled wine, champagne or soft drinks.
The etymology is contested. The Oxford English Dictionary says "picnic" is "Perhaps of multiple origins. A borrowing from French. Perhaps also partly a borrowing from German." The earliest English citation is in 1748, from Lord Chesterfield (Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield) who associates a "pic-nic" with card-playing, drinking, and conversation; around 1800, Cornelia Knight spelled the word as "pique-nique" in describing her travels in France.
According to some dictionaries, the French word pique-nique is based on the verb piquer, which means 'pick', 'peck', or 'nab', and the rhyming addition nique, which means 'thing of little importance', 'bagatelle', 'trifle'. It first appears in 1649 in an anonymous broadside of burlesque verse called Les Charmans effects des barricades: ou l'Amitié durable de la compagnie des Frères bachiques de pique-nique : en vers burlesque (The Lasting Friendship of the Band of Brothers of the Bacchic Picnic). The satire describes Brother Pique-Nique who, during the civil war known as the Fronde, attacks his food with gusto instead of his enemies; Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, a reference to the drunken antics of the gourmand musketeers. By 1694 the word was listed in Gilles Ménage's Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue francaise, with the meaning of a shared meal, with each guest paying for himself, but with no reference to eating outdoors. It reached the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française in 1840 with the same meaning. In English, "picnic" only began to refer to an outdoor meal at the beginning of the 19th century.
The practice of an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors, rather than an agricultural worker's mid-day meal in a field, was connected with respite from hunting from the Middle Ages; the excuse for the pleasurable outing of 1723 in François Lemoyne's painting (illustration) is still offered in the context of a hunt. In it a white cloth can be seen, and on it wine, bread and roast chicken.
While these outdoors meals could be called picnics there are, according to Levy, reasons not to do so. 'The English', he claims, 'left the hunter's meal unnamed until after 1806, when they began calling almost any alfresco meal a picnic'. The French, Levy goes on to say, 'refrained from calling anything outdoors a pique-nique until the English virtually made the word their own, and only afterwards did they acknowledge that a picnic might be enjoyed outdoors instead of indoors'.
The French Revolution popularized the picnic across the world. French aristocrats fled to other Western countries, bringing their picnicking traditions with them.
In 1802, a fashionable group of over 200 aristocratic Londoners formed the Pic Nic Society. The members were Francophiles, or may have been French, who flaunted their love for all things French when the wars with France lulled between 1801 and 1830. Food historian Polly Russell however suggests that the Pic Nic Society lasted until 1850. The group's intent was to offer theatrical entertainments and lavish meals followed by gambling. Members met in hired rooms in Tottenham Street. There was no kitchen so all food had to be made elsewhere. Each member was expected to provide a share of the entertainment and of the refreshments, with no one particular host.
Mrs Beeton's picnic menus (in her Book of Household Management of 1861) are 'lavish and extravagant', according to Claudia Roden. She lists Beeton's bill of fare for forty persons in her own book Picnics and Other Outdoor Feasts:
The image of picnics as a peaceful social activity can be used for political protest. In this context, a picnic functions as a temporary occupation of significant public territory. A famous example is the Pan-European Picnic held on both sides of the Hungarian/Austrian border on 19 August 1989 as part of the struggle towards German reunification; this mass meal led indirectly to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Bastille Day 2000, as a Millennium celebration, France created "l'incroyable pique-nique" (the incredible picnic), which stretched 1000 km from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, along the Méridienne verte.
Contemporary picnics for many people involve simple food. In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson offers hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches and pieces of cold chicken as good examples. In America, food writer Walter Levy suggests that 'a picnic menu might include cold fried chicken, devilled eggs, sandwiches, cakes and sweets, cold sodas, and hot coffee'.
Picnics are traditionally eaten at Glyndebourne Opera during the interval and Roden proposes a Champagne Menu, as made by the Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis: Mousse de Caviare, Chaudfroid de Canard, Tomatoes Farcies and Pêches aux fraises (caviare mousse, cold duck, stuffed tomatoes and peaches and strawberries).
See also: Category:Picnic films
From the 1830s, Romantic American landscape paintings of spectacular scenery often included a group of picnickers in the foreground. An early American illustration of the picnic is Thomas Cole's The Pic-Nic of 1846 (Brooklyn Museum of Art). In it, a guitarist serenades the genteel social group in the Hudson River Valley with the Catskills visible in the distance. Cole's well-dressed young picnickers having finished their repast, served from splint baskets on blue-and-white china, stroll about in the woodland and boat on the lake.
A book of verse beneath the bough,
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Ah, wilderness were paradise enow!— Omar Khayyam, in his 12th century Rubaiyat
There, on a slope of orchard, Francis laid A damask napkin wrought with horse and hound, Brought out a dusky loaf that smelt of home, And, half-cut-down, a pasty costly-made, Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret lay, Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks Imbedded and injellied; last, with these, A flask of cider from his father's vats, Prime, which I knew; and so we sat and ate And talked old matters over; who was dead, Who married, who was like to be, and how.
'What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickled gherkins, salad, french rolls, cress, sandwiches, potted meat, ginger beer, lemonade, soda water.' '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;the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!' [...]
Leaving the mainstream, they now passed into what seemed at first like a little land-locked lake. Green turf sloped down to either edge, brown snaky tree roots gleamed below the surface of the quiet water, while ahead of them the silvery shoulder and foamy tumble of a weir, arm-in-arm with a restless dripping mill wheel, that held up in its turn a grey gabled mill house, filled the air with a soothing murmur of sound, dull and smothery, yet with little clear voices speaking up cheerfully out of it at intervals. It was so beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both forepaws and gasp, 'Oh my! Oh my! OH Myyyyyyyyy!' [...]
The Rat brought the boat alongside the bank, made her fast, helped the still awkward Mole safely ashore, and swung out the luncheon-basket. The Mole begged as a favour to be allowed to unpack it all by himself; and the Rat was very pleased to indulge him, and to sprawl at full length on the grass and rest, while his excited friend shook out the table-cloth and spread it, took out all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents in due order, still gasping, 'O my! O my!' at each fresh revelation.