Tuesday, July 16, 2019
The Joys of Summer #6: Picnics
Of course it has to be French, picque-nique—the word practically can't be pronounced without a Gallic flourish—and originally the word referred exclusively to something one did in France.
"We stayed here till 17th," Miss Cornelia Knight wrote in her autobiography, "and on the previous day went to a pique-nique at a little country house not far from the town."
The town being Toulon, and the year being 1777.
It's clear from the context—the winds were high, they danced afterward—that Miss Knight's picnic was indoors. Prior to 1800, what made something a picnic was the various participants bringing items on the menu; what we call today a "pot luck." After 1800, the essential aspect of picnics being outside crept into use.
I probably reveal too much about myself to say that the idea, "Hey, let's take our lunch, drag it outside and eat it lying down on the grass," is not one that I frequently, or ever, suggest. Half the time when my wife proposes that we go out on our back deck and eat I have to struggle not to say, "But that takes effort. And the food is right here!"
But to Ravinia, or the Blues Fest, well why not? Food helps pass the time.
For families, a picnic is practical on several levels. It's cheaper than a restaurant and invariably better too—most of our family picnics were committed during automobile journeys, where we'd find a well-situated picnic table and break out the cooler. Behavior is also less of an issue. If the kids want to run around after eating, if dad wants to shut his eyes, it isn't the same as in a restaurant. No one is watching.
Which also, for the young, is what makes picnics associated with romance. I'm not sure exactly what is going on in Edouard Manet's infamous 1863 painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, "Picnic on the Grass"—nobody is, though the situation is sketchy enough that the work was rejected as too scandalous by the Salon that year. Let's just say that no one in the painting seems too concerned that the food has tumbled out of the basket.
In literature, picnics are even more louche, to trot out another term the French like. In D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, the pretense of eating is done away with entirely—Paul and Clara set out on their picnic along the River Trent without bothering with the formality of securing food or a blanket and, honestly, neither are missed. Picnics are not meals at home, so flexibility is important and accommodations must be made. A picnic in Nabokov's Ada is where Ada and Van Veen get it on, never mind that she's 12 and they're brother and sister.
I would have sworn that one of Anny's "perfect moments" in Jean-Paul Sartre's surprisingly readable only novel, "La Nausee" involve a picnic, but I'll be damned if I can find it. Maybe you'll have better luck, and if you do, please let me know.
I never went to church, but of course know of church picnics, primarily through "Porgy and Bess," George Gershwin's great American opera. Much of the second act involved Catfish Row preparing for a church picnic on Kittiwah Island. It allows the evil Crown to drag off Bess, but not before the one-two punch of a joyous ode to clean living "I Ain't Got No Shame" followed by a companion paean to sin, "It Ain't Necessarily So." ("The things you are liable, to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.")
Finished? I've barely started. Picnics are a classic cartoon trope, along with desert islands and dungeons, though they are less funny now that beer comes in pull top cans—a lot of amusement seemed to be wrapped up in forgotten church key can openers, though the humor of that eludes me now.
Still, I think we've plunged enough for a summer day. Lying on the grass is beyond me at the moment, but I did sit on the front porch briefly Monday, which felt like triumph. A nice roast beef sandwich consumed under a clear blue sky in a sylvan spot sounds pretty good about now.