The scene is iconic. Maybe even reminiscent of a favorite Looney Tunes cartoon. A red and white checkered blanket weighted down by a basket of food and noshing friends. In the foreground a parade of workaholic insects march away loaves of bread, triangles of cheese and perhaps a condiment or two on their backs. After all, it’s hardly a picnic without a few earnest ants.
The word picnic comes from the French word pique-nique, with ‘pique’ meaning to ‘pick’ or ‘peck’ and ‘nique’ meaning ‘trifle.’ Initially it was used in literature to describe diners at a restaurant who brought their own wine. The definition we employ today echoes the original in that we still supply our own food. The element of a picnic being associated with the out-of-doors is an homage to the Middle Ages when royals set up an elaborate meal as a respite from hunting.
There are two main things to consider when planning a picnic:
• where you plan to eat
• what you plan to eat
A picnic itself can be the main event or, like our hunter ancestors, it can nicely complement another excursion. It’s a welcome treat to enjoy provisions on a mountain top summit after a strenuous hike or the halfway point of a long, woodsy stroll. Take a blanket and some grub to a lakeside beach or kayak up to an unexplored shoreline for sustenance. Grab a picnic table at a local winery or stretch out on the bed of a pick-up truck at an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway. When the key characteristic is simply eating outside (warning: restaurant dining does not count), the options are vast. You really don’t need to go any further than your own backyard.
Deciding on the location will help determine what else is needed. Most importantly, will you be driving to a spot or arriving on foot? Are there picnic tables? Should you bring along a blanket? Camp chairs? Or will your bum be perfectly happy perched on a nearby rock or settled on a patch of grass? These days the fanciest of traditional woven picnic baskets include everything needed like plates and cutlery, wine openers and glasses, napkins and even mini salt and pepper shakers. There are also baskets on wheels, insulated carriers and backpack options if you are, in fact, on foot. The accompanying blanket should be part waterproof, lightweight and easily cleaned. Most picnic blankets on the market today zip up into themselves and come complete with a handy handle.
Picnic vittles can be as elaborate or as simple as the location dictates. Pickled or preserved foods are ideal for withstanding high heat conditions. Cured meats, hard cheeses, olives, gherkins, crackers and tea sandwiches all make great fare. Fresh fruits like mandarins, grapes or apples slices are easy and provide a nice finish. A quick poke around Pinterest advertises many ways to make whole meals in mason jars – everyone’s favorite multi-function glassware.
Of course, if you simply want to plop down with a granola bar, an apple and your water bottle, it still counts. You’re outside. And simple is usually better. Vanessa of Christiansburg has three kids and relishes any opportunity to eat outside.
“I have always found that my children eat better when it is outside or on the go. I can pack the most random leftovers, and sure enough, it will all be gone. Something about eating outside or while standing active helps us all enjoy each bite and not overly focus on the details.”
Choosing to enjoy food encircled by fresh air and the vibrancy of nature, blowing leaves, budding flowers and gurgling streams engages all senses.
“Eating outside is beneficial because it compels you to look around. You are forced to notice nature. It’s hard to ignore the ants and bees that join your picnic. I mean that in a good way. Because in those few seconds, you are not thinking about yourself. You are noticing something outside of yourself,” offers Laura of Blacksburg.
Sometimes you need go outside to escape yourself, escape the everyday mental grind. Including some yummy nibbles in that experience rounds out the regeneration. Just be sure to drop some crumbs for our earth-dwelling friends. It’s certain they look forward to a tasty picnic as much as the rest of us.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is a Blacksburg-based freelance writer. She has fond childhood memories of picnicking at V.T.’s duck pond, standing on top of the cement tables, beaming bread to the ducks below.