A Date With the Picnic Basket

Washington's weather over the past few days has been extraordinarily un-humid, a stunningly rare phenomenon in late July. Over the weekend, it occurred to me that it's high time for a picnic.

For years, I've been in possession of a picnic basket passed down from my mother, who has a thing for American artifacts and antiques. She tells me that this wooden basket, dressed up with a nifty wicker-exterior and the original plastic dishware in Fiesta colors, dates to the late 1940s. Sadly, I've never taken the basket for an al fresco spin, but I started thinking about what I'd fill it with.

All dolled up and no one to take her out: my picnic basket from the 1940s. (Kim O'Donnel)

The notion of eating outdoors to celebrate life has been around since medieval times; according to "The Oxford Companion to Food," there's evidence of pre-hunt feasts in 14th-century England: "the feast before the chase assumed a special importance." Such a meal would include pastries and a variety of meats.

Flash forward four centuries, to the Victorian era, when the OCF says "Picnicking really came into its own" and figures into the literature and visual art of that time.

To wit, a passage from Chapter 42 of "Emma" by Jane Austen, which sets the stage for the infamous showdown between Emma and Miss Bates:

It was settled that they should go to Box Hill
(a spot outside of London historically popular for picnics and hiking). That there was to be such a party had been long generally known: it had even given the idea of another. Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wish to see what every boyd found so well worth seeing, and she and Mr Weston had agreed to choose some fine morning and drive thither. Two or three more of the chosen only were to be admitted to join them, and it was to be done in a quite, unpretending, elegant way, infinitely superior to the bustle and the preparation, the regular eating and drinking, and pic-nic parade of the Eltons and the Sucklings.

In the art world, there are a handful of famous paintings with picnic themes, namely Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1880-1881) by impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and two versions of "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" (Luncheon on the Grass), by impressionist colleagues
Paul Cezanne (1890s) and Edouard Manet (1862-63).

In America, picnic references can be found in the work of Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" and began to move beyond the realm of the wealthy. The word "picnic" conjures up many associations, from a backyard barbecue to a gathering of church parishioners at a local park.

Regardless of the environment, a picnic is a picnic when transport of provisions for the express purpose of ritualized eating and quaffing is involved. It is the quintessential moveable feast. So if your kid packs a PB&J, puts it in a sack with a carton of juice and embarks on running away from home, the minute he/she opens the sack and breaks for lunch he's having a picnic.

In preparation for Sunday's proposed picnic, I made a whole bunch of fried chicken. Apparently, my menu choice is in good company; fried chicken is a part of the lone picnic menu in the "Joy of Cooking," as are hard-boiled eggs, fruit salad, tabbouleh, pasta salad and three-bean salad. The late great James Beard, whose passion for picnicking was well known, also fancied fried chicken, as well as devilled eggs and potato salad (and a hunk of chocolate cake, of course).

Our intentions were good; in addition to the chicken, I bought some French bread at the farmer's market as well as some dynamite nectarines. A bottle of chilled rose was at the ready, it was turning into a sumptuous summertime feast -- and that is where it stands.

I know -- what a waste of a beautiful evening. Don't get me started. Thing is, the picnic weather has lingered, which means we've got time tonight and maybe tomorrow to indulge my picnic fantasy before the humidity returns.

So, I've still got fried chicken in the fridge. What else should we pack? Give me your best picnic shot in the comments area below.

And while you're at it, join me today at noon for this week's edition of What's Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 24, 2007; 11:21 AM ET Summer
Previous: When Pantry Comes to the Rescue | Next: Gnocchi Odyssey


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For a veg, Mediterranean vibe, I'd probably bring a fresh baguette, a couple kinds of cheese, undressed greens (to eat on the bread w/ cheese), olives, my tarragon-artichoke-potato salad, Crenshaw melon slices with lime to squeeze on it, a nice Cotes du Rhone, and cookies or cake for dessert.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | July 24, 2007 12:23 PM

Continuing with your history theme, DC-area voyeurs packed lunches and went out to Manassas to watch the first Bull Run battle.

Posted by: Picka Nicka | July 24, 2007 12:41 PM

I'd bring a nice, light couscous salad with scallions, a little lemon zest and some pine nuts dressed with some garlic, a little fresh lemon juice and some high quality olive oil.

Posted by: Karen | July 24, 2007 12:45 PM

I'm always worried about making a mess so I'd skip the chocolate cake and pack cookies. I'd go for large molasses or oatmeal cookies. Maybe make a blackberry or strawberry lemonade. I'd include a watermelon that has been packed in ice. I should know better than to read your post before lunch, Kim.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | July 24, 2007 12:55 PM

Sweet Iced Tea!! No Lemon!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 24, 2007 1:11 PM

I've done a few picnics here and there and I've always included items such as pasta salad, cheese, baguette and grapes to snack on. As for dessert ~ I've always found that fresh fruit salad is delicious and easier to plan for.

As for main course - fried chicken or wrap sandwiches and for healthier options ~ steak salad or caprese salad have been a huge hit for me and my friends.

Posted by: Lynn | July 24, 2007 1:18 PM

One of the Silver Palate cookbooks has a wonderful recipe for a rice salad that has lots of chopped veggies with a delicious vinegarette dressing. It is so delicious on a picnic!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 24, 2007 1:28 PM

Following on Reine's earlier comment, I'd go mediterranean and do a feta, tomato and cucumber salad with a dill-yogurt-garlic sauce (think tzatziki plus), whole wheat pita or lavash with some Sabra hummus, and fresh fruit salad (local peaches, blackberries and blueberries are all available at fruit stands all around town - just cut some up and voila!). CEV.

Posted by: CaitVaughn | July 24, 2007 2:39 PM

Orzo salad with roasted veggies, herbs, feta, pine nuts, and lemon vinaigrette. Or maybe a roasted corn salad. As for potatoes, I prefer German potato salad (no mayo).

Posted by: MBinDC | July 24, 2007 4:26 PM

kim, I am glad that you finally used the picnic basket. You can put whatever you want in it. Its all up to you and your special person. I know cheese is a big factor and it will make him happy.
Love Mom

Posted by: mary susan | July 24, 2007 7:53 PM

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