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.
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.
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