The Picnic—A Movable Feast

by Tarla Fallgatter (

Copyright © 1996 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.

When enjoyed out of doors, just about any meal seems to taste better. Whether in an olive grove in Greece or simply your own backyard, a picnic is one of the great warm-weather pleasures.

Originally the word "picnic," from the French pique-nique, meant "a fashionable social entertainment in which each party present contributes a share of the provisions." (That would be the modern meaning of "potluck.") Today's definitions update the word "picnic" to mean "a pleasure party in which all partake of a repast out-of-doors," or "an outing or excursion, typically one in which those taking part carry food with them and share a meal in the open air."

Around the middle of the 18th century, picnics were arranged by the English and French aristocracy. Servants, chairs, fine china and crystal along with baskets of wonderful delicacies were loaded into carriages for a trip to the lush woods where the festivities took place.

American Style Picnics

The Great American Picnic springs from European foods and cooking techniques introduced by the founding fathers in combination with the rich native methods of the American Indians. The first Thanksgiving was, after all, a picnic.

Hidden deep in the history books are descriptions of other memorable early American picnics. Pioneers held one such celebration—a Fourth of July picnic—on the banks of the Platte River under a canopy of tent cloths supported by four wagons. The group reportedly serenaded themselves with "The Star Spangled Banner" and munched on wheat rolls, boiled beans and salt pork, bean broth, bacon, pies, peaches, stewed and dried fruits.

Through the years the possibilities for picnics in America have become as diverse and enticing as the regional cooking created by immigrants from every corner of the globe—French-heritage Creole foods of Louisiana, Spanish and Mexican influences in the Southwest, the Oriental flavor in California, hearty German-inspired Pennsylvania Dutch farm fare.

Such international roots expanded into a vast repertoire featuring the natural produce of our continent— from mouth-watering New England clams to the Deep South mainstay of fried chicken; from the smoked salmon Northwest Indian-fashion to tender Iowa corn fresh from the field; wines from the vineyards of New York and California; loaves of pumpernickel and rye from great city delicatessens and home-baked goods from country stores; and all the lush seasonal vegetables and fruits that seem created for picnicking, not to mention that original outdoor treat, the watermelon.

A Variety of Picnics

A Hikers' Picnic

Prepare an easy-to-make meal that can be carried in a backpack. Using a boulder as a table and the sunshine as a lamplight, relax along the trail and enjoy lunching "in the fresh." Trail mix-style chocolate chip cookies travel well in a backpack. Just add granola and dried cherries to your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe or make these:

Granola and Dried Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla
1-1/2 cups granola
1/4 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (6 oz.)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Cream the butter and sugar together in another bowl until lightly and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until well combined. Add the vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients, granola and finally the dried cherries and chocolate chips.

Drop the dough by rounded tablespoons 2" apart onto buttered cookie sheets and bake in the middle of the oven 12 to 15 minutes or until golden. Cool on racks.

MAKES: 36 cookies

Breakfast on the Road

Setting out on a trip that requires an early-morning departure? Rather than taking time for breakfast at home, prepare a picnic you can eat en route or once you reach your destination.

Fourth of July Potluck

The Fourth of July is one occasion when far more Americans dine outdoors than in. Some traditional favorites are fried chicken, potato salad and homemade fresh strawberry ice cream. Divide it among three or four families for a sparkling potluck supper in the park before all the fireworks begin.

Grandstand Picnic

While watching a professional baseball or soccer game or your own youngsters play, every sports fan knows that the excitement of cheering from the sidelines builds a ravenous hunger in no time at all. A portable party can be a nice change from entertaining in your dining room or back yard. Just invite friends to someplace that's different, such as a park, for a game of softball and supper afterward, the beach for a game of volleyball or a nice long run and dinner al fresco, a hillside clearing for a hike before lunch or a football game with a tailgate picnic before going into the stadium. When you have a picnic, it's important to go away, even if it's just down the hill.

Requirements For a Picnic

The first consideration is location. The site should be comfortable, with nearly restroom facilities if possible and some shelter from the sun, whether trees or beach umbrellas.

Other necessities include:

The most important part of a picnic, though, and what gives it flair, is the food. So, direct from the picnic basket once everyone is settled, a first course of pickled shrimp with crisp baguette slices is surely the order of the day.

After all, it's summertime—and the living should be easy.

Pickled Shrimp on Crisp Baguettes

3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. English-style dry mustard
1/4 tsp. dried hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1/4 tsp. mustard seeds
1/4 tsp. coriander seeds
1 cup olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1-1/2 lb. large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. fresh dill or Italian parsley
1 thin La Brea Bakery baguette, cut into 1/2" slices and lightly toasted in a 350 F oven for 2-3 minutes on each side

Whisk together the vinegar, pepper, salt, sugar, mustard, red pepper flakes, mustard and coriander seeds in a bowl and add the oil in a stream, whisking. Whisk until emulsified, then stir in the garlic and bay leaf.

In a large pan of boiling lightly salted water cook the shrimp for 1-2 minutes or until they turn pink and are cooked through. Drain them well and add them to the marinade. Let the mixture cool slightly, then stir in the onion and lemon slices. If desired cover and chill overnight. Stir in the minced dill or Italian parsley and transfer to a portable container. To serve, spoon on baguette slices or dip slices in the mixture and scoop up the shrimp.

MAKES: 8 servings

More Picnic Links

Zion National Park
Tailgate Picnic Homepage
Plaid Picnic Rug
Picnic Baskets by J & J Ventures

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.