In Pursuit of the Picnic

Dust off your hampers, ‘tis the time to savor the season. 

Fancy this—the humble picnic, a leisurely spread set in bucolic splendor, began as a much more decadent affair. Identified as early as 1692, the French pique-nique described a party of patrons who brought their own wine while dining at a restaurant. The origins of the picnic are documented in writing as being extravagant events put on by French aristocracy that included live performances, elaborate fare, and an exclusive guest list. The parameters of a picnic dictated that each guest was to contribute a dish or bottle and, in the style of the salons du jour, conversations surrounding the arts, culture, and witticisms edified the intellectual set. When the upper crust of Parisian society fled their home country during the 1789 French Revolution, many of them settled in London and brought with them their novel custom of the picnic. The English derivative of the pique-nique soon took off and the elegant-turned-relaxed al fresco concept became a way for bon vivant to enjoy the fruits of nature while feasting.
 

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Édouard Manet, 1863 © Bridgeman Images


Americans have long embraced the idyllic tradition of the picnic, its refined roots shed for a more leisurely pastime with an escapist sensibility. Perching oneself under the sway of the trees, surrounded by budding blooms, becomes a sanctuary from the trappings of the everyday. Perhaps most synonymous with the American picnic is the 1950s version brandishing a Coleman cooler packed down with homemade sandwiches and Coca-Colas, all laid out on a red checkered blanket. Rising above the tropes of its early gingham patterned origins, our contemporary version of the picnic is a restful repast that embraces the romantic air of the garden and the breezy appeal of the beach. Spring and summer weekends are spent filling a wicker picnic basket, or hamper if you prefer British terminology, and heading outdoors.

Mad Men film still via Lionsgate Television


All manner of informal finery, from blankets to serving ware, help to zhush the picnic scheme. For a floral affair, this quilt is perfect to pair with creamy melamine goodness and chic rattan can holders all toted in this traditional basket.  A seaside rendezvous wouldn’t be complete without a coastal-inspired spread featuring a hint of hand blocked linens, a blue and white basket, and a nautical board for plating hors d’oeuvres. Dressing the part is half the fun and this airy, universally flattering dress makes the cut along with a chic sunhat. Stay sharp while enjoying the sunshine by bringing a game or two such as a bespoke deck of cards or a personalized backgammon board

Marie Antoinette film still via Sony Pictures


Whether boating to a remote sandbar in the Lowcountry or finding solace among the mountains in the West, a picnic is the quintessential way in which to celebrate the splendors of the season.


I’d be remiss not to mention these gourmet outposts to help you pile your basket high: 

Vintage picnic via Best of Gourmet Magazine 1989

New York City: Plan a stop at William Poll on the way to Central Park for watercress dip and cocktail quiches.

Charleston: Before leaving the dock, stock up on pimento cheese and ham biscuits at Hamby Catering.

Atlanta: At Lucy’s Market, pick out Hungry Peach sandwiches and salads for a fun afternoon at Piedmont Park.

Jackson Hole: Fresh croissants and spreads from Persephone are sure to enhance views of the towering Tetons.

LA: It wouldn’t be a California picnic without bringing kombucha and vegan fare from Erewhon on a trip down the PCH. 

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