The art of picnicking

picnic basket

‘Eating out’ has become such a ubiquitous pastime in Aussie culture that perhaps we overlook that simplest of eating out occasions – the picnic. By ‘eating out’ I mean the custom of eating at restaurants – including the coffee-café craze and the frenzy of fast food outlets.

But a meal ‘out’ can be just that. Out of the house. Out of doors. Out of the rat race.

A pleasure excursion

A quick googling of ‘picnic’ throws up a swathe of similar sounding definitions:

‘An outing or occasion that involves taking a packed meal to be eaten outdoors.’

‘A meal eaten outdoors, as on an excursion.’

‘An excursion or outing with food usually provided by members of the group and eaten in the open.’

And my favourite (thanks, Wikipedia!)… ‘A picnic is a pleasure excursion at which a meal is eaten outdoors (al fresco or en plein air), ideally taking place in a beautiful landscape such as a park, beside a lake… Descriptions of picnics show that the idea of a meal that was jointly contributed to and was enjoyed out-of-doors were essential to a picnic from the early 19th century.’

I like this last description because it indicates that the primary purpose of a picnic is the communal enjoyment of food in a setting of natural beauty.

Simplicity

Part of the charm of picnicking lies in its simplicity. Preparation can be elaborate but needn’t be. One can picnic in the back garden with a sandwich.

And a picnic’s delights are simple delights: food, fresh air, conversation.

Solitary or shared

Communal picnicking in a delightful setting promotes good feeling and shared pleasure. Exercise can be an adjunct to the meal – walking to the picnic spot, or playing an outdoor game. There are other advantages: you can take your dog to a picnic.

Picnicking together allows communication to unfold in a way that restaurants do not – one is not confined to a particular seat with particular neighbours; conversation is unhindered by background noise or loud music. Cutlery may be dispensed with and an air of relaxation prevails.

And of course solitary picnics hold their own charms. A solitary picnic promotes silent contemplation and quiet appreciation. It’s a hiatus in the normal run of events. It requires nothing more than the simplest of packed foods and a spot of reasonable weather.

Whether the weather

Being subject to the vagaries of weather is equally the picnicker’s delight, frustration, excitement or disaster. I’ve watched picnickers huddling vainly under sodden umbrellas. I’ve been one of them. A picnic in fine weather is heaven; a picnic in gale force winds can be purgatory. Either way, one must be prepared for the elements.

But isn’t a barbie a picnic?

It depends.

Barbecues add the element of cooking. Communal cooking round the barbie is a wonderful icebreaker, and usually people bring food to share.

Barbecuing is traditionally done outdoors, though eating outside isn’t always a natural consequence. But take your sausages to a barbie in a park – yes, that’s picnicking!

Peculiar picnic facts

1. The word piquenique first appeared in print in 1692, referring to a group of diners in a restaurant who brought their own wine (Tony Willis, Origines de la Langue Française).

2. After the French Revolution in 1789 royal parks opened to the public for the first time. Picnicking in the parks became popular among newly enfranchised citizens.

3. In 1989 the Pan-European Picnic was held on both sides of the Austrian-Hungarian border. It was a political statement in the campaign for German reunification.

4. In 2000 a 600-mile long picnic spanned the length of France. It marked the first Bastille Day of the New Millennium.

5. The Northern Territory has a public holiday called Picnic Day.

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About the author

Merridy Pugh is an editor and writer based in Hobart. She loves books, sun and tropical fish.


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