The Moveable Feast...In Praise of Picnics

As nature emerges from its Winter sleep, and what was brown and muddy is turning a lush and green, humans with baskets in hand filled with food partake in the ancient ritual called the picnic. Nothing says Springtime like a lovely picnic. You don't have to take the picnic-inspired Manet painting "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" (1863) to heart and have a picnic in the nude, but it symbolizes the light-hearted enjoyment of partaking of food and friends or family in the natural setting. To some, the painting may be controversial but to me it seems to represent the purity that nakedness among nature symbolizes that we are part of it, and it is intimately part of us. Everything we eat, must come from nature, from the earth, thus we are not separate, nor apart from it.

PHOTO: Manet's Luncheon on the Grass painting, 1862-3.

The Great Migration out of the Rift Valley of Ethiopia 80,000 years ago may have been the birth of the necessity of the portable "moveable feast". Later on the Silk Road connecting seasonal trade markets between Africa, the Middle East, and Asia the camels and caravans of the nomadic lives of the Bedoiuns, Tuareg, Shanxi, and Mongolians would inspire packable goods and furnishings. Beginning with the camel, reindeer, or horse train: The camel train covering the "howdah" to the Mongolian "yurt" and the Romanii camp canvass, the Native American teepee, or Inuit igloo - always moving didn't always mean without comfort.

Even ancient armies perfected the cross-framed chair and the mess kit with tools that would look familiar in today's world. The "curule" derives from the root word currus and means. It is as ancient as the Egyptians, Roman Empire, the now humble camp chair, was then a portable throne.

The Silk Road had it's Barbarian Bed called "hu chuang." By the 15th Century the actural folding chair was perfected by Spain and Italy called the Dante Chair. The Sheep-Herder, Shepherd, Hunter, Harvester and Farmer alike had to eat, so invention was born from the basic need to eat. of the land also had the need for moveable feasts out of necessity, as seen in the Nobleman's Picnic from the Medieval Era.

While the word itself varies by culture, in Italy it is al fresco, in France it is "pique-nique" first appearing in French print in 1662, based on the word PIQUER which means "to pick"or peck, also the origin of the term peckish to indicate hunger. In British literature the term "picnic" arrives in 1748 the first records of the word picnic being associated with the social outing, filled with festive companionship and the boisterous feast we know today, which includes food, and beverages, including wine or other spirits.

In both France and Britain the public parks that emerged after the French Revolution ended, royal lands went from barracks to parks, increasing the accessibility fo picnicking. The Victorians added stature and social status to their picnic pursuits, they even had a Picnic Society, and the multitude of Romantic and early Victorian artists where also inspired by the natural gathering of the picnic.

The pleasure of eating outdoors, the piquenique, or to the Spanish "fuero", to carry things outside, and to Italians "fuori" meaning free dining "out" of outside in the cool, fresh air usually during the summertime.

From the Early Victorian paintings such as, James Jacques Joseph Tissot's "Holyday (or The Picnic)" 1876, to the gorgeous gilt leather-bound hardcover, The Picnic & Other Stories by Walter de La Mere. Quaint children's stories such as, The Seven Sparrows and the Motor Car Picnic by Joan Hickson, to the Bohemian Art Deco era tale of wanderlust the novel by Earnest Hemingway, The Moveable Feast.

The picnic continues to inspire films, children's books, cookbooks, and a desire to continue the long tradition.

PHOTO: Thomas Cole's 1860 work "The Picnic."

PHOTO: George Goodwin Kilburne's pastoral painting "The Picnic"

PHOTO: Gaspar Homar's "Picnic in the Country" circa 1905-6

For More Information and Recipes:

The Picnic: A History by Walter Levy

The Moveable Feast: A Picnic cookbook for All Seasons by Denise McMurry

The Picnic Cookbook by Annie Bell

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