The Heart of the Picnic
July 4th is usually celebrated by barbecues, cook-outs, and picnics. Let’s begin by thinking about the distinction between cook-outs and picnics. The classic picnic entails no cooking or heating of food on site. You carry in your food pre-prepared and consume it at some scenic or convenient location. Traditionally all the foods and utensils were carried in one wooden or woven basket, but in the last 40 years it has been supplemented with one hand held cooler—just large enough to carry a bottle of white wine, a jug of sweet tea, or a six pack.
There are three kinds of picnics: romantic picnics, family picnics, and picnics shared with friends. The choice of foods is dictated by that kind of picnic you are undertaking. Romantic picnics should be thoughtful and pleasure foremost. Family picnics are dictated by the need to include items that kids will eat as well as adults. Friend picnics have an element of rivalry in them—the need to have a show off dish or two.
The basics: basket, table cloth, utensils. The more country your basket looks, the more trad your picnic will feel. For table cloths many people default to the red and white checked kind that became popular in red sauce Italian restaurants in the mid-20th century. I think ingenuity and surprise in table cloths matters, so I use a state flag. Some states have cooler flags than others—Maryland & New Mexico supremely cool, South Carolina OK, the Sic Semper Tyranus Flag of Virginia loserly. For a romantic picnic where you are toting wine, always bring crystal stemware and two linen napkins. For all others, sturdy plastic cups work fine. If you are using plastic knives forks and spoons, you must not buy the cheapest flimsiest items. Get sturdy paper plats—double ply at least. Always bring one sharp knife, one big spoon, one corkscrew and can opener, and napkins of some sort. A plastic trashbag also should be tucked in the basket.
Tupperware tubs have made picnics tidier. They permit you carrying things such as shrimp salad which would never have been present at a picnic pre-1950. So what foods are classic foods? Cold Fried Chicken, Slices of Country Ham, Curried Chicken Salad, Potato Salad, Sliced cucumber, tomato & onion salad, Corn Salad, Cole Slaw, Deviled Eggs, biscuits, Cornbread (bringing honey, jam, and butter packs), bean salad, tomato salad, rice pudding, fruit. I’ve never understood the charms of pasta salad, so don’t mess with those, but some people like them.
The era of the quiche on a picnic has come and gone for the most part.
Everyone should cultivate something personal and non-standard. I like kimchi, abada dates, Central American Sweet Potato Salad. I was served an avocado egg salad that I’m sure was West Indian in origin during a speaking trip to Florida once. I’m going to master that.
Everything is better with chips. Potato. Corn. Plantain. But in my house potato chips rule and and Luci has been taste testing all the classics.
Family rule: no soft drinks at the picnic.
Some people have a sweeter tooth than we do, so I am sure the dessert dimension of the picnic is more elaborate. Is there a picnic pie tradition we are missing out on?
What are your can’t miss picnic dishes?