“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
I love picnics. I don’t have them often, of course, but I’ve had a few over the course of my life & they’ve always been fun. When I was a kid, my mom used to have “backyard picnics” where we just set up a simple little picnic on the grass in the yard. It wasn’t anything crazy, usually a few sandwiches with the crusts cut off (mine was always either peanut butter or potato chip; yes I ate potato chip sandwiches) and some soda or sparkling water and some snacks. Once or twice on a rainy day we even had an indoor picnic on the floor and had pizza or Chinese food. It was so much fun.
And then you grow up and your sense of fun changes. You forget to do little fun things every now and then, “just because.”;
Taking a cue from that, I decided to have one now. As a “grown-up.” I have these two vintage picnic baskets sitting around that I never used. Plus I’ve been working really hard, on a variety of things (like the new Recipe Index!). I figured, why do I have to actually go somewhere to have a picnic when I can have one right here?! You can have a picnic anywhere- even inside, like I said. Martha Stewart recently did a segment on the Today show about how to prepare a picnic entirely in jars! There are tons of ways to do a picnic, from traditional to un-traditional. Bring cold foods, hot foods, room-temperature foods, salads, wine & cheese. Whatever you like.
The first usage of the word ‘picnic’ is traced to the 1692 edition of Tony Willis, Origines de la Langue Française, which mentions pique-nique as being of recent origin; it marks the first appearance of the word in print. The term was used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. The concept of a picnic long retained the connotation of a meal to which everyone contributed something. Whether picnic is actually based on the verb piquer which means ‘pick’ or ‘peck’ with the rhyming nique meaning “thing of little importance” is doubted; the Oxford English Dictionary says it is of unknown provenance. The word predates lynching in the United States; claims that it is derived from a shortening of ‘pick a n—-r’ are untrue.
The word ‘picnic’ first appeared in English in a letter of the Gallicized Lord Chesterfield in 1748 (OED), who associates it with card-playing, drinking and conversation, and may have entered the English language from this French word. The practice of an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors, rather than a harvester worker’s dinner in the harvest field, was connected with respite from hunting from the Middle Ages; the excuse for the pleasurable outing of 1723 in François Lemoyne‘s painting Hunt Picnic is still offered in the context of a hunt.
Early in the 19th century, a fashionable group of Londoners (including Edwin Young) formed the ‘Picnic Society‘. Members met in the Pantheon on Oxford Street. Each member was expected to provide a share of the entertainment and of the refreshments with no one particular host. Interest in the society waned in the 1850s as the founders died.
From the 1830s, Romantic American landscape painting of spectacular scenery often included a group of picnickers in the foreground. An early American illustration of the picnic is Thomas Cole‘s The Pic-Nic of 1846 (Brooklyn Museum of Art). In it, a guitarist serenades the genteel social group in the Hudson River Valley with the Catskills visible in the distance. Cole’s well-dressed young picnickers having finished their repast, served from splint baskets on blue-and-white china, stroll about in the woodland and boat on the lake.
The image of picnics as a peaceful social activity can be utilised for political protest, too. In this context, a picnic functions as a temporary occupation of significant public territory. A famous example of this is the Pan-European Picnic held on both sides of the Hungarian/Austrian border on the 19 August 1989 as part of the struggle towards German reunification.
In 2000, a 600-mile-long picnic took place from coast to coast in France to celebrate the first Bastille Day of the new Millennium. In the United States, likewise, the 4 July celebration of American independence is a popular day for a picnic. In Italy, the favorite picnic day is Easter Monday.
I decided to try my hand at a new recipe for a healthier macaroni salad to serve at my little picnic. It’s got basically 3/4 the calories of regular macaroni salad, and it’s got something like 1/3 the fat. Not that these things bother me particularly, because I don’t eat macaroni salad & don’t really count calories anyway, but you can’t have a picnic without some kind of mayo-based or carb-based salad, and I thought it’d be an interesting thing to try. Everyone is looking to cut down on fat nowadays. Not me. I like fat.
Eh. Let’s just call this a new twist on macaroni salad. From what I hear it’s too delicious to be considered “low fat” or anything. And about my “I like fat” comment above; I really do like it. But that doesn’t mean you have to. I’m just being an asshole. Obviously, if you have dietary restrictions or health issues, lower fat diets are important. It’s just that I don’t. So I like fat. And I can’t really apologize for that.
‘Kay, now that that’s settled.. on to the salad!
CREAMY MACARONI SALAD
- 1 pound macaroni (I used small shells)
- 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 hard-boiled large eggs, whites roughly chopped, yolks left whole
- 2 dill pickle spears, chopped
- 1/2 a medium red onion, chopped
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons chives for topping (optional)
- Cook pasta according to the package directions in salted boiling water. Drain and return to the pot it was cooked in.
- Meanwhile, mash the two egg yolks in a large bowl with a fork. Add the yogurt, mayonnaise, and the lemon juice; stir together until creamy & smooth.
- Add pasta to mayonnaise mixture, and using a silicone spatula, flip and stir the pasta until evenly coated in the mayo mix. Add the egg whites, red onions and chopped pickles and mix well.
- Season with salt & pepper to taste. Sprinkle with chives just before serving.
This salad can be stored in the fridge an airtight container for up to three days. If it’s too dry after taking it out of the fridge, you can add a tablespoon more yogurt (or mayo, whatever). Just do yourself a favor and don’t accidentally buy vanilla yogurt. You’ll gross yourself out big time if you use that…
The cool thing about macaroni salads (& potato salads) is that you can add pretty much anything you like, within reason. You can add radishes, celery, sliced Bell peppers, dill, slivered carrots, exchange the lemon juice for vinegar, etc. Take out stuff you don’t like, add stuff you do. This other macaroni salad I made is a great example of that. You can personalize it 100% and yet it’s always guaranteed to be delicious.
As far as a picnic goes- it’s easy. You don’t even need anything crazy. Some bread (mine was a French baguette), cheese (I had some provolone & goat’s milk brie), macaroni or potato salad, fried chicken if you’re really ambitious, maybe some cold cuts or cold leftover chicken, some fresh fruit (& whipped cream if you like- I had strawberries, cherries, oranges & nectarines), maybe some warm-weather friendly cupcakes, a jar or two of pickles (I brought red wine vinegar/red onion pickles & dilly beans), maybe some sliced cucumbers & yogurt, baby carrots & ranch dressing, a refreshing drink or two (maybe even some wine- not pictured) and some cutlery and napkins… that’s it. You’re ready to go! Lucky for you, I took some photos of my little picnic before digging in.
Today might be a rainy/thunderstorm-y day here in New York & a bunch of other places on the East Coast, but when are you having your summer picnic?