*Written for Hudson Valley Magazine
Picnics are deeply ingrained in the American psyche precisely because they pair perfectly with so many of our leisurely cultural touchstones; a road trip, a Little League game, or a date in the park would fall flat without time spent on a blanket in the grass with food. That being understood, the tradition could benefit from a touch of grace. While nostalgia for the Oscar Mayer bologna and Wonder Bread of childhood has its place, if you aren’t reaching further you are likely coming up short. Fortunately, we have some history and tips that will help you fulfill your picnic potential.
Eating outside with our hands has been in style since humans developed opposable thumbs. The original predecessor of the word “picnic,” however, first appears in 1692 as “pique-nique” (piquermeaning pick and niquer meaning a small thing) in the old French text, Origines de La Langue Française de Ménage. It describes bring-your-own-wine or potluck events held in French gourmand circles. Throughout the 18th century, people began using “pique-a-niche” to mean “pick-a-place” where friends and family could gather outside to eat and enjoy nature. The English word picnic was commonly used in England by the early 1800s and by 1861, when Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published, the Victorian Age had clearly added its pomp. Mrs. Beeton prescribes fine linens, crystals, roast duck, and a selection of brandies and beers for starters. Americans adopted the common use of the word around the mid-1800s as well, and took a decidedly more approachable tack.
The first to show us how it was done was our Valley’s own Thomas Cole, whose 1848 painting A Pic-Nic Party depicts people lazing around on blankets under a tree by the river in some splendid valley location; one group is being serenaded by a man playing guitar, while elsewhere a couple pours wine and grabs food from a basket. Terry Carbone, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, where the painting is displayed, explains that Cole “emphasized the sustenance that nature offers to people.”
We imagine Cole’s scene to have included, in addition to wine, some wild berries and simple meats and cheeses. For guidance on those sorts of delectations we turned to Mona Talbott, of Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions in Hudson, whose enthusiasm and expertise for picnicking is hard to match: Her 50th birthday party was a picnic for 75. The invitations were prints of the aforementioned painting by Cole. She is the proud owner of a collection of beautiful Shaker picnic hampers in which she carries her food, along with real plates and cloth napkins to add weight to informal picnic occasions. When it comes to the food, she explains, “Picnics are so much about the senses; you have the beautiful sunlight, the wind in the trees…you don’t want to just chow down on a sandwich.”
Talbott recommends starting with the right cheese. Her shop’s “Peggy” is a small format (8 oz) Camembert-style cheese with a bloomy white rind. She recommends pairing that with some of their house-made caraway rye crackers, some trout or salmon rillettes or chicken liver pâté, or some of their house-made, English-style tomato relish, rounded out with assorted pickles and seasonal fruits — cherries or berries in the early season, and pears and grapes in the late season. For dessert she recommends chocolates or cookies, as “a piece of cake would be too clumsy.” She claims that picnicking can be a better experience than eating at Michelin-starred restaurants; following her recommendations, we can hardly disagree.
Photo courtesy of Beacon Pantry
Stacey Penlon of Beacon Pantry, who supplies provisions for guided picnics run by Hudson Valley Bucket List, recommends a similar format: “We like to recommend one or two cheeses, a dried salami or sliced prosciutto, a spread such as tomato bruschetta, and olive tapenade. Finished off with a crusty baguette and a bite or two of something sweet, and you have the perfect informal picnic.”
If you don’t feel like doing the shopping, order a Picnic Platter from The Cuckoo’s Nest in Albany. The savory assortment includes salty crackers with creamy pimento cheese; smooth peanut hummus; sweet watermelon chunks; sharp, vinegar-laden deviled eggs; and smoky grilled chicken wings (the fried chicken version replaces the grilled at brunch time).
For our favorite picnic spots, visit www.hvmag.com/packing-the-perfect-picnic.