Picnic in the park
By Prerna Uppal
22nd June 2012 12:45 PM
This year marks 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign as a monarch. A number of events were hosted in the UK to mark the diamond jubilee, one of which was a picnic at Buckingham Palace. Twelve thousand guests were invited and treated to a five course menu, made with 62,500 strawberries, 32,000 eggs, 63,823 tomatoes, 1,600 cucumbers and 20,000 lemons, washed down with glasses of champagne, beer and elderflower cordial. Now that must have been one gala event and nothing like the picnics I read about in Enid Blyton books, which were much simpler.
Ever since I read my first Famous Five, I decided that the perfect picnic should be by the side of a babbling brook, under a shady tree, eating scones, sandwiches and drinking loads of iced tea and coffee. And it wasn’t as if I was asking for too much. After all, the Oxford English dictionary does say that a picnic is an occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside. Anyway such a setting was non-existent in Delhi but I did get a few opportunities to live out a childhood fantasy when we came to England.
My first Blyton-esque outing was in Swindon located in the southwest of England. Summer had just begun, wild flowers were in bloom, the ground was carpeted with soft grass, and sunshine streamed through the trees giving many different shades to the greenery around us. I even found a tiny wooden footbridge over a babbling brook. Of all those present, my two young nieces and I, I was the most excited. But I digress.
As you would have guessed by now, the topic of the day is the picnic and its colourful history. No one quite knows for sure who coined the term but it has been in use since the end of the 17th century. It was first used in print in the 1692 edition of Tony Willis’ Origines de la Langue Française.
A picnic was referred to as a type of social entertainment in which each person who attended brought a share of the meal. The first part of the word ‘picnic’ may be from the French ‘piquer’, from which the word ‘pick’ originates. The word could mean two things, either leisurely eating (picking) or a delicacy of food. The ‘nique’ part may have been picked up to rhyme with ‘pique’ (as in English words like okie-dokie).
For a long time a picnic signified a meal to which everyone contributed something, akin to potluck. Potluck is when every guest brings a dish each, to contribute to the spread eaten by all attendees. The idea was to ensure that the burden of providing the meal did not fall on one family.
Picnics became quite a rage in France after the French Revolution in 1789 when royal parks became open to the public for the first time. The fashion of enjoying a meal outdoors was then imported by the English around the middle of the 19th century. A group of Londoners even formed the ‘Picnic Society’. Members met in the Pantheon on Oxford Street. Each member of the society was expected to provide a share of the entertainment and of the refreshments with no one particular host.
But before this time, as food writer Albert Jack tells us, a picnic was associated with poker playing and later was used to describe a meal of cold foods eaten outside during a hunt. He says that the tradition went back to the 14th century.
A picnic can be of many kinds — small, large, with deli sandwiches or a barbecue, one that has games, or even a lazy one. As long as it is easy and fun, it is a picnic — qualities that give rise to the phrase ‘no picnic’, which basically means ‘no easy task’. To give you an example of its usage before I sign off — trying to maintain a healthy diet on a vacation is no picnic at all.
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