Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Edwardians and Picnics - Or, Reasonable Eating Out of Doors

No climate in the world is less propitious than the climate of England, yet with a recklessness which is almost sublime, the English rush out of doors to eat a meal on every possible and impossible occasion.
-- Georgina Battiscombe, English Picnics (1951)

The Idle Historian has a confession to make. One which may cause something of a shock -- so please do have the proverbial smelling salts close at hand. I am not overly fond of eating outside. Or, at the very least, I dislike the unthinking compulsion in our society to eat out of doors -- despite the discomfort, the dodgy weather, and the logical difficulties involved. Worse still is the daft impulse to drag all and sundry contents of the kitchen (and barbecuing equipment) far afield (to a park or a beach) and proceed to laboriously prepare a meal. The effort involved is massive, the results often middling, and the mental state required to embark on such a project dubious. In short, I believe that we invented civilization so that we might eat within the comfort of four walls.

That said, of course, there must be exceptions that prove the rule. Our spring, summer, and glorious scenery exists for these small outings. But they should be few and far between, and furthermore well-chosen occasions. One should not run out to patios pell-mell, simply because the temperature has edged above 10C. The conditions in climes such as Canada and England are most often unfavourable, and the experience of the dining or social occasion thereby diminished. Not to mention that those with good circulation among us generally give no heed to those who might not be so blessed. The ubiquitous patio heater is often of little practical advantage on this score. Generally the individual is left freezing on one side and charred on the other -- quite aside from the carbon footprint of such activities.

Eating outdoors must be rationed carefully, like a fine brandy or a vintage claret. Special occasions must be chosen with a view to the probable weather, and reasonable provisions set aside in case of an inclement outcome. Of course even the best-planned excursions may encounter rain, and one must take this eventuality with the proper degree of stoicism. It is, I contend, much easier to countenance them with the knowledge that such miseries may occur but infrequently.

The Idle Historian's rules for outdoor eating are thus:
1. It should not require inordinate effort on the part of the participants. (Ideally, no effort at all. See the reference to hampers below.)

2. It should be a special treat, not an everyday mania.

3. It should be an experience that would fit aesthetically into a Evelyn Waugh novel or a Merchant Ivory film. Otherwise, take advantage of benefits our ancestors have bequeathed to us and eat indoors.

This leaves us with, essentially, an Edwardian picnic. This occasion was one of (at least in memory) perpetual sunshine, flowers, youth, copious amounts of food and drink: sandwiches, cold meats, cold pies, biscuits, fruit, Pimms. Picnic food -- not simply a replica of normal fare.

[A group of young Edwardians having a picnic. The photos of them are in
black and white. The experience was in vibrant colour.]

There were games of croquet, cards, bawdy songs, parasols for the ladies, sedate flirtations under the oaks. The Edwardians took advantage of a new appreciation for the pleasures of leisure and the English countryside (along with improved transport -- trains and automobiles) to visit it in large numbers.

The other vital element of the experience, one which the Edwardians understood, was that one should contribute as little effort as possible towards the food. It should come to one as if a gift from the heavens. This is why carting a vehicle filled with a barbecue and most of the accoutrements of the kitchen to a park or beach to cook the outdoor meal simply won't do. 

No, the ONLY thing for outdoor eating is the picnic hamper -- ideally packed by someone else. Such as Fortnum and Mason. The legendary qualities of Fortnum's hampers was the subject of an earlier post, "How to Travel in Culinary Style." A hamper answers quite nicely for the occasion, and since it is so difficult to get good domestic servants these days (and footmen are particularly in such short supply), it is easily portable by two people.

[The Classic Fortnum and Mason hamper. Eminently civilized.]

The hamper denotes civilization and, although it might seem luxurious or extravagant to some, it actually represents the height of restraint and -- I dare say -- even modesty. The hamper signals that the participants are not under the delusion that they must recreate ALL the elements of dining out of doors -- the cooking of meat for example. They understand that it is about the aesthetic merits of the outing and combining the best of all experiences in perfect moderation: the food and drink as minimalist accompaniment to the splendour of the outdoors.

[A do-it-yourself hamper. This sample has the right idea going --
one would NEVER purchase a hamper lacking claret glasses.]

The Idle Historian wishes all the readers of this blog a glorious spring and summer. For most of us the season is short, the days of sunshine teasing us with their swift appearance and disappearance. And by all means do invite me to a sedate hamper picnic, as this is certainly as much outdoor dining as the Edwardian soul can take. As life is, alas, filled with suffering I will not turn down a beach barbecue either, but I am not bringing meat to put on the grill.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils


SloaneScholar1 said...

Excellent post old boy! I cannot abide by curbside dining in the city. You get to share your meal with people & their pets, smokers, and car exhaust. YUM! Indoors with air-conditioning and mood lighting is always preferred.

When I think of picnics, I remember David Mitchell's very funny line (from either The Big Fat Quiz or Would I Lie to You ... or was it QI) about himself being the "wasp cake" ...

Diane said...

Haha, I agree entirely and hate eating outside as I have a phobia of wasps. I live in Aberdeen where we only get about 2 weeks of picnic weather a year anyway so it is not something I need to worry much about, thank goodness.

Linenqueen said...

The love of my life and I took up car camping at one point. I vividly remember nearly every meal. While being served out doors is entirely unappealing when I had to figure out not only the food but how to fix and eat it the experience was greatly enhanced.

We were someplace in Montana by a large rapidly flowing river pulled off the road. My love was sitting in a camp chair while I rolled out lunch. The day was perfect. Some canoeists went by waving at us. A moment in time to be treasured much as those frozen by the Edwardian photographs.

Thank you so much for those and for the backward glance. Ann

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