Monday, July 2, 2012

A Mid-Century Picnic

Happy Independence Day!

Grab your Skotch cooler, hamper, or basket and head out to a grassy lawn somewhere and have yourself a 1950s style picnic! Straight from and other sources here's a quick rundown of the history of picnicking...

In medieval times picnics were for the wealthy feasting and fete-ing out on hunting trips (sounds like my dad's version of "shore lunch" while fishing in Canada) but picnicking today as we know it probably originates from the mid-1700s, minus the formal settings and servants. The menu, however, remains much the same -- hams, baked meats, pastries, etc. Fortunately for us middle class folk, "everything is relative: what was formal then made a trestle-table in the open countryside seem exhilaratingly abandoned. The general feeling of relief from normal constraints..."
---The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolutions, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners, Margaret Visser [Penguin:New York] 1991 (p. 150-1)

On to the 20th Century....What have folks served at picnics for the last one hundred years? Pre-refrigeration and mayo-scares?? (see the full text at

An early 1900s account: "For the feast, forget not the napkins, forks, spoons and the luncheon-cloth. Also carry tumblers, plates, salt, pepper, sugar and a bottle of cream or can of condensed milk. Cups with handles, but no saucers, are desirable for tea and coffee...The following bill of are may be selected from, with such changes as suit the locality or general surroundings. Bill of fare for a spring picnic: Cold Roast Chicken. Sandwiches of Potted Rabbit. Bewitched Veal (potted veal). Small Rolls with Salad Filling. Cold Baked Ham. Egg Salad. Buttered Rolls. Hard Boiled Eggs. Crackers. Chow Chow. Bombay Toast (think savory French Toast). Pickles. Orange Marmalade. Quince Jelly. Sugared Strawberries. White Cake. Almond Cake. Cocoanut Jumbles. Lemonade. Tea Cakes. Raspberry Vinegar. Bill of fare for a summer picnic: Cold Boiled Chicken. Tongue Sandwiches. Spiced Beef. Sardines. Jellied Chicken. Pickled Salmon. Spanish Pickles. Sweet Peach Pickles. Boston Brown Bread. Beans. Fresh Fruits. Imperial Cake. Neapolitan Cake. Small Fancy Cakes."
---Queen of the Household, Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth [Ellsworth & Brey:Detroit MI] 1900 (p. 566-570)

1910s: A few cold fried chickens, some peanut sandwiches, a big paper sack full of Saratoga chips (a name-brand national potato chip), some potato salad in a fruit jar, two or three kinds of jelly and bread and butter, a couple of chocolate cakes and a cocoanut cake and a freeze of strawberry ice cream and a few accessories were practically all we expected at a picnic dinner in those days...
---"What Usually Happened on the Old-Fashioned Picnic," New York Times, May 26, 1912 (p. SM11)

Assorted picnic menus circa 1926: (not so unusual to us today)
Ham sandwiches with lettuce
Dill pickles, Stuffed eggs
Swiss cheese and buttered rye bread sandwiches
Lemonade in thermos, Sugar cookies
Fried chicken, Deviled eggs
Whole tomatoes, Potato salad
Dates stuffed with peanut butter
Caramel ice cream in vacuum container
Gold cake squares

Baked whole ham
Cabbage slaw, Olives
Asparagus (put in glass jar), Mayonnaise
Vanilla ice cream in vacuum container
Ice-box cookies

Hot dog sandwiches
Chicken salad sandwiches
Dill pickles, Stuffed olives
Potato chips
Iced tea or coffee in thermos, Buttermilk cookies

Hot beef steak sandwiches (prepared on charcoal furnace)
Whole tomatoes, Dill pickles
Stuffed eggs, Saratoga potatoes
Hot coffee (prepared on charcoal burner)
Small sponge cakes."

---Every Woman's Cook Book, Mrs. Chas. Moritz [Cupples & Leon:New York] 1926 (p. 691-2)

Fast-forward to the 1950s: [1953] "Picnic menus" from the Joy of Cooking
  1. Wieners or hamburgers rolled in pancakes, chilled tomatoes, rye crisp, cheddar cheese, gingerbread in cup cake pans, pears and grapes, coffee.
  2. Sauteed Canadian bacon on hard rolls, snap bean salad with lettuce, onions and French dressing or potato salad with lots of lettuce, deviled eggs with liver sausage, watermelon, poppy seed cake, coffee.
  3. Baked ham, Italian salad, bran muffins, Roquefort cheese balls rolled in chives, sour cream apple pie, berry pie, coffee.
  4. Broiled steak, canned French fried potatoes, picnic salad, soft buns spread with butter, pickles, white cake I or II with chocolate icing, salted nuts, coffee.
  5. Sauteed eggs with bacon or sausages, baked beans or jambolaya, olives, toasted buttered French bread loaf, apples, gold layer cake with caramel icing, coffee.
  6. Fried fish or chicken, baked potatoes, potato chips or green corn, cole slaw, dill pickles, beaten biscuits, banana chocolate cake, peaches, coffee."
---The Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker [Bobbs-Merrill:Indianapolis] 1953 (p. 971-8)

In Grandma's notebook there is no mention of picnic cooking or any out-of-doors fare. Her clippings seem to gravitate toward family meals, desserts (lots!), potlucks, and ladies' luncheons. Similarly, recipes for the above picnic fare are also not pasted into the notebook. I assume two scenarios -- one being that the above recipes weren't necessarily recipes but cooking that was simply unwritten or memorized through repetition. The second scenario is if Grandma had written versions of popular picnic foods they were in another place -- the standard 3 by 5 recipe box. I

I know for a fact that Grandma could fry a chicken -- her future mother in law required it from her during a visit to the Nebergall farm along with a properly-baked apple pie. Great-Grandma Nebergall insisted that she be able to make the two dishes lest her son (my Grandpa) starve. Ha! 

Quiz time everyone! 
Check off the following modern American picnic scenarios that have applied to you:

   * "traditional American foods" prepared at home and served on a blanket in a local park
   * ethnic cuisine celebrated by an extended family in an urban riverfront location
   * an artfully presented basket of gourmet delights served on fine linen and china
   * box lunch obtained from a convenience store consumed at the beach
   * bread, cheese, and grapes shared by best friends in a canoe
   * a family passing peanut butter crackers and bottled water at a highway rest stop
   * a child serving imaginary cakes to stuffed animals beneath the protective branches of the family's    backyard tree.

Thanks for the above item...they also astutely mention,"It's the spirit, not the food, that makes this meal special". Yes, even the most devoted foodie shouldn't take themselves too seriously I think. Happy picnicking!

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