Hungry History

History in a Basket: It’s Picnic Time!

By Stephanie Butler
picnic basket

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If you’re like most Americans, chances are you’ve been on at least one picnic this summer. And if you haven’t, why not? Dining al fresco with friends and family is one of summer’s greatest pleasures, although it certainly wasn’t always that way: It’s hard to envision prehistoric man enjoying lunch by the lake as much as we do. So how and when did the picnic become popular?

Historians agree that the English word “picnic” comes from the French term “pique-nique”, which was used from the mid-1600s on to describe gourmands who brought their own wine when dining out. But elegant meals outdoors were probably first eaten during the Middle Ages, when hunting became a favored pursuit of the leisure class. These medieval hunting feasts were depicted in artworks of the time, like the ballads of Robin Hood and the famous Bayeux tapestry.

Up until Victorian times, picnics were primarily a pursuit of the wealthy. It’s easy to understand why: Working men and women barely had enough means to scrape together a proper meal indoors, let alone pack up a feast to go. But the Victorian era saw the picnic cross class boundaries. The seminal book on British cooking and housekeeping, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, gave detailed instructions on how to hold a picnic. For 40 people, Mrs. Beeton insisted on, among many other things, cold roast beef, four meat pies, four roast chickens, two roast ducks, four dozen cheesecakes and one large cold plum pudding. To quench the picnickers’ thirst, three dozen quart bottles of beer were on the menu, as well as claret, sherry and brandy.

Of course, picnics have been somewhat simplified since then. Cold fried chicken, chilled watermelon and beer on ice are all hallmarks of modern-day picnics, as well as that ubiquitous favorite, potato salad. Here’s a recipe for a new take on a classic—hold the mayo to let the late summer flavors of new potatoes and dill really shine.

DILLY POTATO SALAD
Start to finish: 1 hour
Servings: 6 servings

8 medium sized waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2/3 cup finely chopped green onions
4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Place the potatoes in a large stockpot with enough water to cover potatoes by an inch. Add the tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil potatoes until a knife pierces into the flesh easily, about 15 minutes. Drain and let air dry until cool enough to handle. Slice into ¼ inch slices. Add olive oil, vinegar, the teaspoon salt and the pepper. Stir to coat potatoes and let cool. When ready to serve, add the chopped green onions and dill.

Categories: Food, Recipes