Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Pique-Nique

The above photo is of a picnic held on Bastille Day, 2000, in Paris (CBS  News) The idea was to bring people together without regard to class, race, or gender in the new millenium. About 4 million people attended huge pique-niques in streets of Paris. Similar pique-niques were held around France on the same day.

United State of America - On the eve of Memorial Day, you may be planning a picnic with friends and family. Memorial Day is the traditional beginning of the summer season. A picnic or barbecue is a good way to kick off the summer. But have you ever thought about where picnics come from?

Our American-style picnic has its roots in Europe, specifically in Medieval outdoor hunting banquets. This tradition continued among the wealthy throughout the Renaissance and reached its zenith during the  era of Victorian garden parties. Even in the US, elaborate picnics, complete with servants in attendance, were enjoyed by wealthy families. But most Americans made picnics more informal.

The European tradition spread both East and West. The painting to the right shows attendants at a royal picnic in Persia in the 17th century

The great food historian Margaret Visser has this to say about it:

The French might have invented the word "picnic," pique nique being found earlier than "pic nic." (The meaning, aside from the probably connotation of "picking," is unknown.) It originally referred to a dinner, usually eaten indoors, to which everyone present had contributed some food, and possible also a fee to attend. The ancient Greek "eranos," the French "moungetade" described earlier, or modern "pot luck" suppers are versions of this type of mealtime organization. The change in the meaning of the term, from "everyone bringing some food" to "everyone eating out of doors" seems to have been completed by the 1860s. The impromptu aspect, together with the informality, are what the new meaning has in common with the old; there is a connotation too of simple food, which may be quite various, but which is not controlled, decorated, or strictly ordered into courses. Picnics derive, also, from the decorous yet comparatively informal sixteenth-century "banquets" mentioned earlier, which frequently took place out of doors...Not very long ago, picnics were rather formal affairs to our way of thinking, with tables, chairs, and even servants. But everything is relative: what was formal then made a trestle-table in the open countryside seem exhiliaratingly 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)
Enjoy your Memorial Day pique-nique!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saturday in the Park


We should have awarded a prize for the best food-and-family history story at our potluck picnic. It would, without question,  have gone to Glenn Mack. Glenn is President of Le Cordon Bleu of Atlanta. He's also a world traveler and has studied food and cooking in some unexpected places. One of those places is Uzbekistan. You see, Glenn told us, his lovely, sparkling wife is half-Russian, half-Uzbek. One summer they visited the Uzbek side of the family. Glenn took it as an opportunity to learn to cook Uzbek-style. After a few days of cooking together, Glenn's in-laws sat him down and said they had a confession to make. Glenn got concerned, "What is it?" he asked. They answered, "We're not really Uzbek. We're Tatars!"  Glenn responded,  "Then let's cook Tatar food!" And so they did, and that's why Glenn brought a Tatar eggplant dish to the picnic. (Accompanying thumbnail is Glenn)

All the food at the potluck was fantastic. We're a diverse group, and it showed.  A few examples: we had Caribbean-style pigeon peas and rice, Korean rice noodles, Pennsylvania-style ham salad, Polish goulash, Italian antipasto, Swedish-style filled cookies, and Midwestern-style oatmeal-coconut cake with a mysterious past.  Everyone wants all the recipes, and so we are collecting them to bind into a little publication for our members. But more about membership later. Watch this blog for more information in the next few days.

Twenty-five culinary historians and one Irish wolfhound met up on this perfect day in May on the tranquil banks of the Etowah River to share food, fun, and family stories. It was hard to imagine that this was the site of a terrible battle and weird, but exciting locomotive chase during the Civil War. What is now a picnic ground was once the town of Etowah, Georgia, home of Coopers Iron Works, where pig iron was fabricated for sale to munitions manufacturers working in service of the Confederacy.  All that remains is the giant stone chimney that was the heart of the factory, now known as Coopers Furnace.

Chef Christy Seelye-King helped bring the images of the past alive in a spirited presentation on the town and General Sherman's destruction of it. She told us that another venture in Etowah was the manufacture of hand-made knives that were carried by Confederate soldiers. The knives were kind of big and bulky, not well suited for combat. More soldiers deployed them for culinary purposes. In another link to culinary history, as part of the Great Locomotive Chase, the trains had to stop for meals. One of the trains was actually commandeered while it was stopped to allow troops to have breakfast. There are no historical documents describing the breakfast, so we conjectured on that for a few minutes. Were the soldiers chomping on hardtack or hard boiled eggs?
(photo:  Chef Christy)

After the meal, we dispersed to the many corners of the park. Some folks went fishing, others hiking and geocaching (or at least attempting to - the cache was never found), and a few just relaxed in the picnic shelter, socializing and listening to the birds, the river, and the laughter of children.

Cover photo by Roger Dickerson