All Hail the American Picnic

By Ana Kinkaid

If there’s any activity that announces, “Summer is here!” in American culture, it’s the tradition of going on an idyllic picnic.

Yet picnics didn’t start in America. Early in 1649, picnics were mentioned in a satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-niques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.”1 American Picnic

By 1802, the word made a jump to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.

In the 1820s, British authors began to record the adventures of picnickers who enjoyed their meals in pastoral locations. In Emma, Jane Austen’s character Mrs. Elton plans a “sort of Gipsy party. We are to walk about your gardens and gather the strawberries ourselves and sit under trees. . . Everything as natural and simple as possible.” What a change from the former days of excess!

In America, picnics started out as large political feasts staged out of doors on long buffet tables, complete with enough alcohol-rich punch to win votes.

5 American Political Picnic

But hands down, cars may have been the greatest influence on picnics in America.

In the early 20th century, automobiles were built more for amusement than long-distance travel. The early Oldsmobile, for instance, could be set up as a dining room on wheels with a strap-on “motor hamper” behind the passengers.

By 1911 Mrs. A. Sherman Hitchcock was instructing hostesses on how to put on a “motor party.” Picnics, she wisely advised, “were not just divertissements; our health depended on them. There never was, and never will be such a remedy for the tired, overworked human body.”

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Half a century later during the post-war boom years of the 1950s America witnessed a dramatic rise in car sales and the development of highway infrastructure. Returning G.I.’s happily purchased cars and hit the road. They wanted a new way to define themselves positively after the horrors of war. One such way was to gather the family together, get in the car and go on the road for a peaceful picnic.

8 Road Picnic

These war-weary men often felt a sense of individuality and control when driving. Car registrations rose during this period from 40 million to 62 million with one automobile for every three persons!

Soon specialized picnic sets appeared on the market, designed for car trips to nearby lakes and campgrounds as well as the National Parks. Catching onto the trend, fast food outlets like McDonald’s appeared along the roadsides like mushrooms.

Convenient drive-through meals quickly replaced the elegant but time-consuming hamper feasts as culinary trends shifted to the faster pace of American life.

Yet chefs today, due to the demand for off-site catering, are rediscovering the favorable but nearly forgotten fare that once graced the legendary hampers of America’s early years.

Chilled Carolina Seafood Hamper Salad14 Seafood Salad


1 T. Old Bay seasoning

Dash Kosher salt

1 1/2 lbs (16- to 20-count) peeled and deveined shrimp

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1 lb sea scallops, halved crosswise

1 lb cleaned fresh calamari, sliced crosswise in 1/2-inch-thick rings

2 lbs fresh Taylor Blue Mussels

1/2 cup good olive oil

4 t. minced garlic (4 cloves)

2 t. dried oregano

1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes

3 plum tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed and medium-diced

1/3 cup limoncello liqueur

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and thinly sliced crosswise

1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly packed

2 lemons


Fill a large pot with 3 quarts of water.

Add the Old Bay seasoning and 1 tablespoon of salt.

Bring to a boil, add the shrimp, lower the heat, and simmer for 3 minutes, until just firm.

With a skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a large bowl.

Leave 2 cups of the poaching liquid in the pot and discard the rest.

Add the wine to the poaching liquid and bring to a boil.

Add the scallops, lower the heat, and simmer for 2 minutes, until just cooked.

With the skimmer, transfer the scallops to the bowl with the shrimp.

Bring the poaching liquid back to a boil.

Add the calamari, and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, until just cooked.

With the skimmer, transfer the calamari to the bowl.

Bring the poaching liquid to a boil again.

Add the mussels, cover, and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes, until all the shells have opened.

Turn off the heat and set aside until the mussels in the broth are cool enough to handle.

Add the mussels to the bowl.

Set aside 1/2 cup of the poaching liquid, discarding the rest.

Drain the remaining seafood in a colander and put it all back into the bowl.

For the dressing, heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat.

Add the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes.

Cook for 1 minute.

Add the tomatoes.

Cook over medium heat for 2 more minutes.

Add the reserved poaching liquid, the limoncello, lemon zest, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.

Cook for 1 more minute.

Pour the sauce over the seafood and toss gently.

Add the fennel and parsley.

Cut a lemon in half lengthwise, cut it thinly crosswise, and add it to the salad.

Toss gently to combine and cover with plastic wrap.

Chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.

To serve, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and the juice of the remaining lemon.

Taste for seasonings and serve cold.

Kinkaid, Ana
Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.

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