Laura Dean Bennett
Shady glades beckon and the creeks are warming up. Summertime is here, which means it’s time for picnics.
Although farmers, hunters and travelers have been taking small meals outdoors for centuries, the French actually coined the term “pique nique,” in the late 17th century.
It meant “to pick at little bits of food.”
By the late 1800s tables specifically made for picnics were being made and sold in both the old world and the new.
One of the nicest aspects of picnicking is that picnics can be anything we want them to be.
Whether last minute and slap dash or well-planned and elaborate, it’s hard to imagine anyone not perking up when they hear, “Let’s have a picnic!”
It’s so nice to plan something special – and not at all difficult to turn an ordinary paper plate affair into a memorable event.
This summer, capture the imagination of your fellow-picnickers with a historically themed outdoor repast.
“My manner of living is plain…a glass of wine and a bit of mutton.” ~ George Washington
By the time early Americans made their home in towns like Williamsburg, Virginia, it was not unknown for a large group of young people or a chaperoned courting couple to seek out a sylvan glade for an outdoor meal.
For a Colonial-inspired picnic, choose foods which would have been available to our 18th century ancestors.
Probably one of the most common foods eaten by the colonials at any meal would have been meat.
Venison was probably the most readily available game meat, but turkey, grouse, duck, geese, rabbits and squirrel were most certainly brought home, as well.
Colonial diets also included pork, as wild boars were hunted and hogs were raised on some farms.
Most colonial towns were situated near the ocean or a river, so fish and seafood were also common foods.
A roasted chicken, served hot or cold, might have been plattered with boiled potatoes and served with berries, apples, grapes or raisins
Meat and vegetable pies were favorite “take out” cuisine.
What could be more convenient for a picnic, than a pie which could be served either warm or cold?
You’ll be sure to garner praise with a homemade Cheshire Pork Pie.
Here’s a modernized version of an original Colonial recipe.
Cheshire Pork Pie
1 small pork loin, about 1 1/2 lbs.
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 cup white wine
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. butter (approximately)
Trim excess fat from pork and slice about 1/2“ thick, in two or three inch squares. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Peel apples, cut lengthwise and core. Slice thickly and set in bowl of water to which 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice has been added.
Put a layer of pork slices in rolled out dough in the bottom of a buttered baking dish. Cover with a layer of sliced apples. Sprinkle the apples with sugar. Top with another layer of pork. Pour in the wine. Dot pie with butter.
Roll out remainder of dough and cover the pie (or roll dough into marble-sized balls, flatten them into pastry coins and arrange them in overlapping pattern to cover the dish).
Bake in Dutch oven over medium coals or in a home oven at 350º until slightly browned – about 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
If you’re feeling a bit less ambitious- fill a ready-made pie crust with diced meat and potatoes and/or vegetables (Onion “Pye” was an 18th century favorite), fold in half and bake.
In addition to apples, peaches and grapes, berries would have been baked into pies, too.
Bread and butter, cheese, salads of wild or cultivated greens, carrots, onions, garlic, scallions, nuts, and, in some colonies, even pineapple and coconut were available, so you may include them in your picnic menu as well.
Gingerbread was another colonial favorite.
The story goes that when Mary Ball Washington – George Washington’s mother – was entertaining the Marquis de Lafayette in her Fredericksburg home, she served the beloved French general a gingerbread made from an old family recipe.
So impressed was he that he asked for the recipe and it thenceforth came to be known as Lafayette Gingerbread.
Cornmeal and beans were also staples, so it would have been common to include cornbread and a bean dish of some sort.
For authenticity, transport your colonial picnic in 18th century-inspired baskets and provide your guests with wooden “trenchers” (plates), two-tined forks and lacy napkins, if you can.
Present your colonial cuisine on a pewter or wooden tray laden with carafes of punch, cider, wine or beer, as these were common beverages of the day.
Americans drank more alcohol during the colonial era than at any other time in our nation’s history.
It’s estimated that the average person consumed at least eight ounces of alcohol a day – beer or cider for breakfast, rum and wine with dinner, and punch, claret and other wines in the evening.
This may indicate that after most picnics, the day’s agenda would have included time for guests to indulge in long naps.
“A table spread in the shade…everything as natural and simple as possible.” ~ Jane Austen, Emma
Contrary to what Jane Austen said in Emma, the Victorian picnic was far from simple.
By the middle of the 19th century, the English and European upper classes, and even those in America, had transformed what might have begun as a simple peasant meal, eaten out of a traveling basket, into an event fit for royalty.
A working class family and their neighbors – usually confined to a gritty, urban life – probably enjoyed large, informal potluck picnics in city parks.
But picnics were an entirely different proposition for the upper classes.
For them, picnics were more like expeditions – elaborate affairs requiring a great deal of organization and effort, where elaborate arrangements would have been made to transport a feast and everything but the kitchen sink, to make the experience as wondrous as possible.
Lawn chairs, blankets and hammocks were often used and it was more usual for a dining room table and chairs to be packed on a wagon and transported to the picnic site by horse-drawn wagons.
Gentlemen may have arrived on horseback, but most guests would be carried to the picnic site in carriages.
Picnic or no picnic, ladies would never have ventured forth into the outdoors without their bonnets, parasols and gloves. Even though they were dining al fresco, Victorians would have still been constrained by multitudinous rules of social etiquette.
Carefully planned activities would follow the picnic and might include music and a sing-along, storytelling, games, sports and walks.
China and silver would be carefully packed into wicker hampers along with carefully ironed linen napkins and tablecloths, salt and pepper, sugar and, always, a bottle of cream.
Picnic fare was carefully chosen for its ability to withstand travel, so that nothing served should look disheveled, soggy or unappetizing.
Pickled vegetables and preserved fruits were served along with crackers, cheese and canned sardines.
For dessert – pound cake, sponge cake and fruit cake were popular as well as fresh and candied fruits.
A typical Victorian picnic menu might include:
Cold Roast Chicken or Fish Platter
Sandwiches of Potted Meat
Small Rolls with Salad Filling
Cold Baked Ham
Hard Boiled Eggs or Scotch Eggs
Chow Chow or Sweet Peach Pickles
Bombay Toast (an Indian version of French Toast)
Orange Marmalade. Mint Jelly, Quince Jelly
Tea Cakes, Sugared Strawberries, White Cake, Almond Cake, Coconut Jumbles.
Fresh or Dried fruit and Nuts
But above all else, sandwiches were de rigueur.
It would have been a poor picnic hamper which did not include the queen of Victorian sandwiches – the cucumber sandwich.
Traditionally, a cucumber sandwich consisted of nothing but cucumbers – and maybe a bit of butter, but Americans added a spread called Benedictine.
There are many variations, but a cold Benedictine spread usually con- sists of herbs or spices mixed with cream cheese.
Cucumber Sandwiches with Benedictine Spread
1(8 oz.) package cream cheese, softened
3 Tbsp. sour cream
(.7 oz) package dry Italian salad dressing mix
2 cucumbers, sliced
In a small bowl, blend cream cheese, sour cream and dry Italian-style salad dressing mix. Arrange cocktail rye bread slices on a medium serving dish. Spread with the cream cheese mixture. Top each with a cucumber slice.
Traditionally, cucumber sandwiches would have been served without, but, if desired, they may be served with a second piece of bread on top.
Wine – perhaps a claret – might accompany a particular picnic course, although iced tea and lemonade were more often favored for picnics.
“The secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” ~ Mark Twain
The term “pioneer” picnic evokes welcome even-ing sustenance after an arduous day of traveling through the wilderness or a brief pause for a hasty noon-time meal beside a cool stream during a busy day of farming or haymaking.
It might have been a rarity for pioneer friends and neighbors to take a day to gather together for a picnic, but whether it was for a barn-raising, a wedding or just a picnic basket meal beside the swimmin’ hole, gather they did.
Your pioneer picnic menu need only be the kind of homemade food that would have graced trestle tables covered in muslin or carried onto a quilt spread under a tree.
And rather than staining your good cloth napkins, make denim napkins from old jeans and either hem them by hand or with a sewing machine or leave the raw, torn edges to complement the rustic theme.
A 19th century meal would never be fussy – just meat, potatoes and onions, garden-grown vegetables, fruit and berries in season and, of course, homemade bread, rolls or biscuits and something sweet for dessert.
You can never go wrong with fried chicken, venison, pork pie or ground venison meatloaf served with home-canned pickles or relish.
For sandwiches, use cold boiled beef or pork on coarse brown bread or salt risen bread with butter or cheese.
To keep bread or sandwiches fresh, and to stay in keeping with your pioneer theme, wrap them in a slightly damp tea towel.
Fresh wild greens top-ped with spring onions and dressed with a mixture of vinegar and sugar make an excellent salad.
Fresh fruit cobbler, apple or berry pie and buttermilk cookies will do nicely for dessert and keep old fashioned jugs or vintage pitchers of cider or lemonade handy, with tin or enameled porcelain cups alongside for serving.
Old Fashioned Lemonade
5 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups lemon juice
Boil 2 1/2 cups of water with the sugar.
Place on the lid and let cool.
When cool, add 2 1/2 cups of water and the lemon juice.
Some people prefer a tart lemonade, some a sweeter flavor.
Adjust amounts to suit your taste.
If your picnickers will have made a fire, you might cook up Brunswick stew or a pot of beans, just the way the pioneers did – in a cast iron Dutch oven over hot ashes.
A small pot of jam would be the perfect accompaniment for leftover rolls or biscuits served with coffee from an enamelware pot when the evening turns chilly.
Whether you’re planning a Victorian, Colonial or Pioneer picnic – ask each member of the party to bring a lantern in case your picnic runs late in the evening.
Use cord or twine to hang them in the branches above your picnic ground for a beautiful glow and when the picnickers leave, they can use their lanterns to light their way back to civilization and, sadly, back to the 21st century.