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 paintingLe 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. 


  1. I seem to enjoy picnics most in fantasy and memory. Thanks for thinking of us while you're dining from a tray. Hope that won't continue for much longer.

  2. Only way to do Ravivia. Sit back and watch the day turn into night and watch people claim their turf.

  3. I can't get over the look on the naked lady's face. Mild surprise and wry amusement seem to greet the onlooker, who may be a photographer, but who is also us of course. The lack of shame exhibited by the lady possibly struck the Salon as a deliberate affront to the standards of the day. And one can't avoid noticing that the two men are not only fully dressed, but to the nines.


  4. My wife and I attend many outdoor events every summer...mostly theatrical and musical. She whips up the picnic and puts the food and drinks and utensils into containers, which go into bags and coolers. They go into the back of our vehicle, along with the folding chairs, folding table, pillows for our backsides, and carpet squares for our feets. We know the drill by now, after years of practice, and it operates like a well-oiled machine.

    When we arrive at the venue, everything is shlepped to our "turf" in a folding grocery cart. Of course, we're there as early as possible, to find parking and to stake a claim, Oklahoma Land Rush style. I covered the "turf wars" aspect earlier this month, so I won't go down that road again.

    Dozens of mini-Ravinias every summer...Shakespearean plays and all types of live music. When we're munching and listening in our prime spots, life is good.


Comments are moderated, and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.