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Picture the Fourth of July, 1903. Girls in pigtails and pinafores run as fast as they can to make their pinwheels spin in the breeze. Their brothers in knickers and porkpie hats throw Chinese firecrackers behind unwary adults and stray dogs. Wives carry a worn and well-washed quilt to use as the family picnic blanket, and husbands in white shirts, jackets and straw hats dutifully carry the loaded picnic hamper. All are on their way to the town park to watch the parade, eat a picnic lunch and enjoy the fireworks. It’s a scene as American as the apple pie Papa carries in the basket.
Perhaps so, yet the picnic probably had its origin in ancient Greece as a community potluck served in the open air. It was the French, however, who gave it the name “picnic” by combining the root verb piquer-to pick-with the rhyming nonsense syllable nique. Originally a picnic meant any potluck meal, but it eventually came to mean any outdoor repast.
It was the British who gave the picnic elegance, bringing along tables, chairs, heavy linens, silver, crystal, china, wine and fancy foods as well—as the servants to do the heavy lifting and serving. Stout British picnic hampers were the size of a steamer trunk, and they were filled with enough food to feed the family for a week.
For a Fourth of July picnic today, we have the luxury of technology rather than of servants. Picnickers can choose to cook at home and bring food in coolers or to cook on site with outdoor grills. Whether folks carry folding canvas chairs or sit on a blanket, the beauty of sparkling fireworks filling the night sky remains an awesome sight on this holiday. At any other time, the picnic serves as a casual celebration of friends and family, tucking into a moveable feast.