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!


Gary Allen said...

Walter Levy has done some great work on picnics (newer than the delightful Visser book you quoted). You can read one of his articles on the subject at:

Deb Duchon said...

Thanks, Gary. I'll check it out.