A picnic is the metaphor for the perfect day — unless it isn’t.
Too often, picnics are sadly devoid of inspiration. How many times can you drag the old picnic basket under the same tree, stuck with the same ol’ scenery and the same boring ol’ chips and dip? We’re here to save the day with some ideas from the great literary masters, some of whom have written about beautiful – and wildly diverse – picnics. From Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse to that wonderful classic The Wind in the Willows, eating al fresco has never been more intriguing.
It also helps to have the input of Dinah Fried, author of Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals (Harper Books, 2014). She came up with no fewer than 50 culinary scenes from literary classics, and we’re here to add that summery picnic spin. Fried graciously offered her comments and ideas, so let’s start with one of her recommendations:
1. The Simplicity = Bliss Picnic
Inspired By: Enid Blyton’s Five Go Off in a Caravan and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse
Fried tells us her favorite picnics are often the simplest. She says her two picnic must-haves are hard-cooked eggs and cold chicken; easy staples that, when combined with the likes of peach pie in East of Eden or with the roasted potatoes in The Secret Garden, make for a splendidly tasty outdoor meal. And she quotes the following from Enid Blyton:
“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into. ‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”
2. The Picnic With a Thrilling Twist (also good for late-night campfires!)
Inspired by: Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock
Not all picnics are perfectly mild and picturesque. Give your picnic a thrilling literary tinge by adopting the theme found in the period thriller, Picnic at Hanging Rock. One could almost view it as an anti-picnic cautionary tale, so this idea also works well for nighttime outdoor fun. Set in 1900, three schoolgirls disappear around the Hanging Rock but before that, they enjoy milk and lemonade in the shade of a gum tree, along with chicken pie and a pretty heart-shaped cake (it’s Valentine’s Day in the book).
Pack a similar lunch, take a hike, and maybe give yourself a good old-fashioned scare.
3. The “This Is Just an Excuse to Be Alone With You” Picnic
Inspired by: D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love
We’ve covered the simple, cheerful picnics for all, the outdoor meal mixed with a bit of good old-fashioned fright, and now, the inevitable: The romantic picnic. Or rather, in the case of D.H. Lawrence’s classic Women in Love, the picnic that basically just exists as an excuse to be with that special somebody. With such picnics, everything is an aphrodisiac from the sun glinting off the leaves to the breeze that rustles the grass. What to pack?
Lawrence had Ursula and Gudrun sampling cucumber and caviar sandwiches after swimming nude, and at the Sherwood Forest picnic Birkin just throws “bread, and cheese, and raisins, and apples and hard chocolate” into the car while Ursula impatiently waits with growing desire. Seriously, just toss and go.
4. The Picnic All Imaginative Kids Will Adore
Inspired By: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows
If you have kids and they haven’t yet read this timeless classic, it should be on the summer reading list. Afterward, they might be receptive to the idea of a fun, fantasy-style picnic along the lines of Mole and Rat’s successful picnic venture. Who can forget Rat’s answer to Mole’s query concerning the contents of the picnic basket? “Enough to give any picnicker indigestion,” he says. And then there’s Mole with his snout buried in the basket going, “O my! O my! O my!’ at the mysterious parcels, each containing a new revelation.”
You don’t necessarily have to find cold tongue (and your kids may not eat it, anyway), but it’s a perfect inspiration for a young ‘uns picnic.
5. The Picnic That Resolves Differences
Inspired By: Anton Chekhov’s The Duel
Sometimes, we just need to sit down and talk things out. In the case of the peace-keeping Samoylenko in The Duel, it’s all about “an awfully good soup of grey mullets,” an impractical but effective choice.
“The fish soup was ready by now. They were ladling it out by platefuls and eating it with the religious solemnity with which this is only done at picnics.”
It’s an occasion for putting aside those chafing differences and eating outdoors; reminding ourselves that perhaps a “duel” really isn’t necessary. And it doesn’t have to be especially elegant or even neat. In the book, the participants “lose bread and spill salt and wine everywhere.”
Having a tough week with a friend or significant other? Give this a try.