Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Get Stuffed - Le pique-nique

Going to ground to dine out

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The wicker hamper is packed, a sunny yellow damask tablecloth neatly folded at the bottom. On top: two wineglasses, plates and forks, a bottle of good chardonnay Gismondi recommended in last week’s column, a baguette, maybe some buttery brie, baskets of local strawberries and a container of smoked wild salmon. Someone will invariably forget the corkscrew, but otherwise this looks like the start to another perfect picnic on the banks of Lost Lake.

But this isn’t your usual picnic. Or it is, and far more. For our hamper is also bearing all the icons and cultural baggage associated with our understanding of the picnic – or le pique-nique, as the French originally called it.

To begin with, there’s come to be an allure, a piquancy of sorts, about anything pique-ishly named, a fact not overlooked by the co-generators of this humble newsmagazine – and no, I’m not bucking for a raise. However, the etymology of "pique-nique" starts hazily in France in the late 1600s with no definitive explanation of why and where the term arose, and certainly no indication that it has anything to do with things piquant. Most likely it was simply a playful rhyming duplication of the French verb "pique", meaning "to pick".

And what else do we do on a picnic, but pick ants from the tablecloth, burrs from our socks, seeds from the watermelon, and bits of this and that from the proffered offerings scattered among the tangle of legs and elbows (the picnic table being a relatively recent but welcome invention for anyone over 40).

In one of those peculiar reversals of status, le pique-nique started humbly as a meal taken outdoors by peasants in France. It spread to Germany (a description of a "piquenic" near Hanover was recorded in 1748) and to Sweden. But once the idea moved across the channel to England (we have one "Miss Knight" writing in her autobiography of 1777 of going to a little country house outside Toulon in 1777 for a pique nique; no doubt she told everyone about it when she returned to England) the upper class rubbed its collective hands together and said, oh goodie, let us abandon our fine oak tables and comfortably upholstered chairs and drag some hinds of deer outdoors and sit on the ground.

The early 1800s in England saw the rise of fashionable Pic Nic Societies which hosted Pic Nic suppers (all important terms being suitably capitalized) in which each member drew a lot obliging her, or him, to provide the dish indicated. "The rich," recorded one sour observer, who likely never received an invite, "have their sports, their balls and their parties of pleasure and their pic nics."

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