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Picnicking Through The Ages

May 26, 2013
Originally published on May 29, 2013 3:56 pm

Whether a shepherd, an explorer, a hunter or a fairgoer, people have been eating outside since the beginning of time.

"The dictionaries confirm the word 'picnic' first surfaced in the 18th century, so we were picnicking before we had the term," says research librarian and food historian Lynne Olver, who runs the Food Timeline website.

"The original definition of the word 'picnic' denoted something like a potluck," she says, "so you would have a bunch of people getting together, and each would be contributing to the feast."

One of the earliest accounts of picnicking, she says, comes from tales of Robin Hood. He and his Merry Men would informally dine on bread, cheese and ale under the trees, Olver says. But picnics, she notes on her site, also evolved from the tradition of elaborate movable feasts among the wealthy.

"Back in the day," she notes, "you had medieval hunting feasts, Elizabethan country parties."

And in the Victorian era, picnics were very grand affairs indeed. In 1861, the definitive list of the Victorian picnic fare for England's upper class appeared in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. One could not eat outdoors without tables, linens, crystal, chairs, servants — and gourmet fare, of course. It's a far cry from our blankets and coolers, but the idea was ultimately the same.

Over time, picnic baskets have also evolved.

"Woven baskets have been used to port food from the very earliest times forward," Olver says. "The reason is they are light, they are sturdy, they are easily adapted for specific purposes. The largest ones seem to resemble trunks, and that might be where we get the picnic hamper from. Picnic basket kits as we know today — having placeholders for dishes and silverware and glasses and napkins — actually begin to appear at the very dawn of the 20th century."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Memorial Day weekend - the unofficial start of summer, which means trips to the beach, ball games and, of course, picnics. All this summer, WEEKEND EDITION will be bringing you fresh takes on great portable foods - recipes included. Seasonal ingredients that you can buy at a supermarket or a farmer's market, prepare at home and still have enough time to stake out your favorite picnic spot. Today, we kick off the series with a bit of picnic history. Lynn Olver is a research librarian and a food historian. She's also the brain behind the website FoodTimeline.org. Lynn, thanks so much for being with us.

LYNN OLVER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, before we get to the basket itself, what do we know about the origins of the picnic?

OLVER: Well, picnic as we know it today descends from upper-class recreational al fresco dining. And back in the day, you had medieval hunting feasts, Elizabethan country parties and 19th century Victorian repasts.

MARTIN: We're talking full table settings and crystal. What was on the menu in those early days?

OLVER: The original definition of the word picnic denoted something like a potluck. So, you would have a bunch of people getting together and each would be contributing to the feast. So, you would have baked ham and meat pies and all sorts of cakes and tea and ale. And one of the earliest accounts we have of picnicking is Robin Hood and his Merry Men. They often went to inns or they went to street vendors and they would dine informally under the trees. And after they dined, they napped.

MARTIN: So, now, we get to the basket part of it. When does that come into picnicking?

OLVER: Well, woven baskets have been used to port food from the very earliest times forward. And art depicting the early picnics depict baskets of different shapes and sizes. The largest one seemed to resemble trunks, and that might be where we get the picnic hamper from. Picnic basket kits, having placeholders for dishes and silverware and glasses and napkins actually begin to appear at the very dawn of the 20th century. And now we have party coolers on wheels.

MARTIN: So, as someone who has studied this a lot, do you have a favorite strategy for eating al fresco?

OLVER: I'm a Coleman cooler girl.

MARTIN: Nice.

OLVER: So, I have a Coleman cooler, which is 20 years old and has been brought on vacations and baseball games. And we still use it today now when we tailgate.

MARTIN: Food historian Lynn Olver. You can hear our summer picnic series - and get some great recipes, by the way - all this summer on WEEKEND EDITION. Hey, Lynn, thanks so much. Happy summer. Happy picnicking.

OLVER: You're welcome. You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.