Prior to the 1860s a pic-nic (yes, that’s how they spelled it), was not the ant-filled, outdoor revelry many of us will enjoy this coming holiday weekend. The original meaning is closer to what we would call a potluck meal, with each guest expected to bring a dish; and it was held indoors. In 1802 The Times of London went so far as to describe the drawing of lots, by future pic-nic guests, which are then matched with a particular dish on a list created by the host(ess). The guest is then required to make the dish and “either take it with him in his carriage, or send by a servant.” I guess even back then they realized it was important to coordinate who was bringing what, for fear of ending up with 12 different versions of chicken salad.
As near as linguists can make out, the word “picnic” comes from the French piquenique which can be broken down into pique which is a form of the verb “to pick” and nique which some feel is a nonsense rhyming syllable and others (including the venerable Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française) say that it means “a thing of little or no value.” Since the French are very persnickety about their language, we also know that the Académie Française accepted the word “piquenique” as an official French word in 1740. The two most important aspects of the pic-nic or picnic are that it is casual, and often impromptu. The dishes are usually not fancy, thus perhaps being considered, in a sense, to be of little or no value.
Some 19th Century pic-nics required a little more of their guests than a pack of hot dogs from the supermarket. Often they were expected to provide the entertainment as well. The Pic-Nic Society, founded in London in 1801, was a sort of combination amateur theatre company and potluck supper club. Professional theatre managers were not pleased with this new society, as it took away some of their custom. It was also attacked in the conservative press as an example of upperclass decadence. Caricaturist James Gillray provided hilarious, satirical cartoons of overweight aristocrats attempting Shakespeare. Eventually, with the death of its founders, the London Pic-Nic Society became defunct in about 1850.
Not that much later, the meaning of the word “picnic” began to change, becoming associated chiefly with eating out of doors. I have not been able to find any reason for this shift. Perhaps, the event had gotten as casual as possible while still being held indoors with tables and chairs, and now, in a fit of modernity, the doors to the garden were thrown open? Feel free to discuss ideas about why the picnic came out of the dining room in the comments.
I’ll end with my favorite picnic recipe below, but first, remember to be careful if you go down to the woods today.
Fast and Elegant Picnic Loaf
Serves 4-6 depending on the size of your loaf
Below I list some of my favorite ingredients to put in a picnic loaf, but really it can be anything you like. It’s good to have some sort of sandwich spread or relish to keep things moist, and three or four other ingredients that go well together, very simple really. As always, the better the quality of your ingredients, the better the result will be.
1 round loaf of bread, sometimes called a boule or a cob
good quality mozzarella cheese
Pesto (homemade if you’ve got it)
Roasted red peppers
assorted sliced, and grilled or roasted vegetables like zucchini and eggplant
good quality prosciutto, thinly sliced
sun dried tomatoes
First you turn your loaf of bread into a container. To do this use a bread knife to cut a circle in the top of the loaf that is about 3-4 inches in diameter and goes down into the loaf about 2 inches. While cutting, hold your knife at an angle of less than 90 degrees to make a bevel around the edge of your circle. Carefully cut your 2-inch high “top” away from the loaf and set it aside.
Pull most of the white insides (also called the crumb) of the bread out through the hole you have just made (you can save these pieces of bread to make breadcrumbs. Be careful not to pull out too much bread, we need to have the crust and some crumb left to act as a container for our ingredients.
Use a spoon or a knife to spread a layer of pesto all over the inside of your new bread container.
Next layer all of the ingredients in any order that strikes your fancy, occasionally adding a layer of pesto to keep things moist.
When the loaf is full, put the bread top back on, wrap it well for transport and go spend the rest of your morning deciding what to wear to the picnic.
To serve, cut as you would a pie, so each person gets bread with layers of ingredients inside.
Don’t forget the wine!