Thus begins George Gershwin's venerable standard "Summertime". One of the most popular activities for many of us during the summer months is going on a picnic. What is so neat about a picnic is that it can be extremely enjoyable for a party of two or a throng of several hundred. For many folks, summer just would not be summer without partaking in at least a few picnics.
Such a curious word is picnic. The word picnic derives from the French term "piquenique" which signifies an outing with food - similar to the word's meaning in English. At these piqueniques, the attendees would all bring food to the occasion, similar to what we call potlucks today. Food historians tell us that picnics also evolved from the elaborate traditions of moveable outdoor feasts enjoyed by the wealthy. Medieval hunting feasts, Renaissance-era country banquets, and Victorian garden parties lay the foundation for what has evolved into today's picnics. Here in America the "picnic" as we know it today dates back to roughly the middle of the 19th century. How one does a picnic is a very personal thing. Some folks carefully pack a basket with gourmet foods and enjoy them on fine china and linen while others prepare much more traditional grub at home and serve it on paper plates. Still others decide to picnic on the spur of the moment and pick up foods specially prepared for such occasions at the local supermarket or deli. Lord knows, there is no right way or wrong way to do a picnic.
For those simply looking to relax a family picnic at a beach or state park is an excellent way to wile away a sultry summer day. A few times each summer my wife and I pack a picnic lunch and head to a state park about an hour from our home. While we are there we go swimming, do a little reading, take a hike and maybe catch a few innings of the Red Sox game on the radio. I cherish these days because they are among the few days all year long that we have no work to do or commitments to keep. And of course cooking some burgers or chicken on the fireplace is also a kick. Food just seems to taste better outdoors. Many extended families reserve a Saturday or Sunday each summer for a much-anticipated family outing. This is a great opportunity for the kids to get to know their cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents. Meanwhile, the adults get to catch up with all of the family news and gossip while enjoying a wide array of great dishes. A quick survey of most picnic tables will find such perennial favorites as fried chicken, burgers and dogs, mounds of potato salad, deviled eggs, freshly roasted corn-on-the-cob, baked beans, watermelon and homemade pies in every variety imaginable. Off to the side are coolers stocked with all kinds of soft drinks, beer and wine. Such a relaxing day for everyone and it seems as though the day flies by and before you know it it's time to pack up and head home. Unless of course a dreaded thunderstorm comes along. The English born American poet W.H. Audet once observed: "Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic". How true, how true!
Meanwhile, the company picnic is a beloved tradition at many firms. It's a great opportunity for employees to mingle and "let down their hair." A well organized company picnic with planned activities can help integrate employees with each other. As such it goes a long way in helping to create the "esprit de corps" that can make companies much more successful. The company I work for has a fabulous catered picnic at a beach every summer and all seem to enjoy it immensely.
Finally, many charitable organizations like the Elks or the VFW and many church groups invite everyone in town to community feasts like an old fashioned New England Clambake, Texas Barbecue or Steak Fry. Great food and good company for worthwhile causes. It's a "win-win" for everyone.
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In contemporary usage, a picnic can be defined simply as a pleasure excursion at which a meal is eaten outdoors (al fresco or en plein air), ideally taking place in a beautiful landscape such as a park, beside a lake or with an interesting view and possibly at a public event such as before an open air theatre performance, and usually in summer. Descriptions of picnics show that the idea of a meal that was jointly contributed and was enjoyed out-of-doors were essential to a picnic from the early 19th century.
Picnics are often family-oriented but can also be an intimate occasion between two people, or a large get-together such as company picnics and church picnics. It is also sometimes combined with a cookout, usually a form of barbecue; either grilling (griddling, gridironing, or charbroiling), braising (by combining a charbroil or gridiron grill with a broth-filled pot), baking, or a combination of all of the above.
Some picnics are a potluck, an entertainment at which each person contributed some dish to a common table for all to share. When the picnic is not also a cookout, the food eaten is rarely hot, instead taking the form of deli sandwiches, finger food, fresh fruit, salad, cold meats and accompanied by chilled wine or champagne or soft drinks.