The Picnic as it Might Be

Mount Kenya (Photo credit: Martin Sharman)
Mount Kenya (Photo credit: Martin Sharman)

Despite the title [No Picnic on Mount Kenya: A Daring Escape, A Perilous Climb, by Felice Benuzzi], this is a book about a series of picnics on Mount Kenya (and much more besides) – although, in that strangest of times during which Signor Benuzzi made his climb, the supplies became depressingly depleted as the atmosphere rarefied. The effect of the Second World War had rippled far beyond Europe. In East Africa, Italians were rounded up by the British and incarcerated in camps. Felice Benuzzi, born in Austria but educated in Rome, was among them. He was deported from Ethiopia, where he worked, to POW camp 354 at Nanyuki, about 160km north of Nairobi. The 10 000 prisoners, he later wrote, were “an assortment of all ages and trades… old and young, sick and healthy, crazy and sensible”. Benuzzi ticked the box marked “crazy”. ~~ Simon Calder

On a day in late April,  the 80-plus-degree heat forced my hands to take on a life of their own. Said hands then prepared a semi-picnic dinner, for my flesh — and my spirit — craved a picnic. The heat seemingly whispered, “The time is ripe.”

There’s something picnic-provoking about hot weather and the outdoors …  for picnics generally call up happy memories or create them.

That’s why we say that something that’s unpleasant is “no picnic.”

It’s no picnic to be in a prison camp, for example.

no-picnic-on-mount-kenyaBut Italian prisoner-of-war Felice Benuzzi seemed to believe differently. He considered all his meals to be picnics once he escaped from the Nanyuki prison camp, just to climb Mount Kenya. Amazingly, he and his two compatriots returned to the British POW camp once their adventure ended and there they waited out the war.

What’s a picnic, really?

The word “picnic” or ‘an informal meal in which everyone pays his share or brings his own dish,’ originated in the French words piquer (“to pick at one’s food”) and nique (“something of no value,” among other meanings). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “picnic” means many different things, one of which is this:  “The  Pic-Nic Society n. now hist. a theatrical club founded in London in 1802, at whose meetings members brought their own contributions to meals.” The word “picnic” or ‘an informal meal in which everyone pays his share or brings his own dish,’ originated in the French words piquer (“to pick at one’s food”) and nique (“something of no value,” among other meanings). As for the actual origins, most likely these outdoor meals began with medieval hunting feasts and other festivities like garden parties taking place outside.

So picnics are really nothing new. After all, people ate out-of-doors for centuries, because, frankly, they lived under the sun and the stars. Every meal celebrated another day of breathing and another mouthful of food.

What’s new is that outdoor food today doesn’t require a spear, a trap, or a special ritual evoking the gods’ blessing on the hunt.

Most modern grocery store sports a deli section and, with a little advance notice, many sit-down restaurants prepare perfect picnics consisting of take-out orders. The almost-perfect (read “cooking-free”) picnic looms within reach, even for the busiest person.

Picnic ca. 1920 (Photo credit: Robin Hutton)
Picnic ca. 1920 (Photo credit: Robin Hutton)

In Edwardian England,  and later, picnics rose to the level of fine art, probably because the picknickers themselves usually commanded servants who labored for hours preparing all manner of picnic hampers for them.

A now-classic painting by Édouard Manet — Déjeuner sur L’Herbe — brings to mind verdant forests and bubbling springs, the perfect Edwardian-style picnic, actually.

But what Manet omitted in his Salon-des-Refusés painting, every entomologist alive knows to be true:  a huge host of insects and other pests like to picnic as well.

Other artists, in this case British food-writer Elizabeth David, captured forever the following picnic scene:

Scarcely had we time to draw the cork of a bottle of the Rhinegold Australian  hock which we  were lucky to get in war time India than we were surrounded by nearly every dog in the province; literally surrounded…then we shoo-ed them away several times, but they returned immediately…until they forced us to get into our cars and return to the city…

(From “Picnics,” Summer Food, 1980 ed., p. 241.)

Calder describes Benuzzi’s picnics on the ascent of Mount Kenya as such:

Back in 1943, the escapees’ typical picnic on Mount Kenya was “a combined lunch and dinner consisting of porridge, corned beef, biscuits and tea”, all of it extricated from the meagre supplies at the camp. This was the feast that the three enjoyed on the afternoon that they established their base camp for an attempt on the summit.

Some picnics apparently turn out more unspoiled than do others.

For the nearly faultless modern-day picnic, almost any food suffices, since most of the thrill of picnicking lies in being outdoors and doing something unusual.

Photo credit: Bryan Bruchman
Photo credit: Bryan Bruchman

But to enjoy a truly relaxing and worry-free picnic, consider a “cooking-free” [meaning no grilling] menu of hard-cooked eggs (unshelled), potato salad, macaroni or other pasta salads, cold rice salad, coleslaw, bean salad, corn salad, pre-cooked sausages, sliced ham, sliced deli cheeses, Brie or Camembert cheeses, roast-beef sandwiches, baked beans, cold fried chicken, smoked chicken or turkey, cold barbecued ribs, pickles, olives, watermelon and other seasonal fruits, French bread, bread sticks, an array of mustards and a new unopened jar of mayonnaise, jars of pickled artichoke hearts or asparagus, canned smoked oysters, slices of cheesecake, carrot cake, ice cream (keep it in a thermos until ready to serve), and lemonade.

By adding to your picnic hamper such necessities as paper napkins, washable silverware (NOT plastic), and real (NOT Styrofoam or paper) plates and cups, and, of course, a bag for litter should there not be a trashcan at your exclusive picnic site, you will be well-prepared for the almost seamless picnic.

But, remember, things are not always as they seem.

As Elizabeth David again reminds us:

” ‘Bright shone the morning and as I waited I made for myself an enchanting picture of the day before me, our drive to that forest beyond the dove-blue hills, the ideal beings I should meet there, feasting with them, exquisitely, in the shade of immemorial trees.

And when in the rainy twilight, I was deposited, soaked and half-dead with fatigue…had I not created, out of that very dream and disenchantment, the ideal Picnic, the Picnic as it might be–the wonderful windless weather, the Watteuish landscape, where a  group of mortals talk and feast as they talked and feasted in the Golden Age?’ “

— Logan Pearsall Smith–
(As quoted by Elizabeth David in Summer Food, p. 244.)

Just plop down on the grass or, better yet, blanket, and open the hamper.  You know what to do.

And just in case you feel that the picture-perfect picnic, “the Picnic as it might be,” must have at least one “homemade” dessert, try the following for good measure.

Photo credit: Annette Pedrosian
Photo credit: Annette Pedrosian

“Shortcake” with Fruit

1 ready-made angel food cake
2 peaches
2 apricots
1 large ripe plum
20 cherries
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream, whipped

Slice cake into 8 wedges.

Cut fruit into dice, except for cherries, and mix with sugar and vanilla until sugar coats all well (this can be done ahead and stored in plastic or glass containers).

To serve: Place cake wedges in bowls, top with fruit and whipped cream.

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


One comment

  • Wonderful sentiments! I truly believe that everything just tastes better when you enjoy it outdoors. Of course, I’ve never picnicked “au naturel” like the lovely ladies in Manet’s painting – maybe I’m missing out on something!?


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s