Picnics at the World’s Fairs




The wicker basket, the plastic champagne glasses, the cute little napkins printed with ants…will all have to wait. St. Louis’s air is clotted with humidity, barely breathable, and the sun belongs in Death Valley. We have entered the dog days, terribly misnamed because any dog with sense just sleeps through them. I close my own eyes tightly, wishing for an early, golden fall that will take us al fresco again. My brain is tired, and it wants a picnic.

Fresh air relaxes us, aiding digestion. Food smells better and tastes better outside, where our senses are heightened and protocol dissolves. Picnics are woefully underrated. If you doubt me, consider the word’s implications. A “picnic wine” is soft, slightly sweet, and light, just heady enough to encourage a nap in the shade. Claude Bolling’s Picnic Suite is an irreverent, teasing romp that threads jazz and blues rhythms through a classical orchestra. Picnics of any sort are deliberately informal, simple by definition, and delightful.

There are, however, a few rules. The search for the right spot is sacred and should not be rushed. It needs to be scenic, not overlooking a row of Dumpsters or Port-a-Potties, and natural, with no concrete or asphalt in sight. Seek shade or dappled sunlight, not the glare of direct sun. Your food should be cold. Every guest should contribute at least a morsel to the feast. Ideally, you will spread a red-checked tablecloth on the ground, but a redwood picnic table is acceptable after age fifty.

No one spoke of picnics in English until 1748, when Lord Chesterfield used “pic-nic” to describe a casual mix of card-playing, drinking, and conversation. The word did not refer to an outdoor meal until 1800. But pique-nique had joined the French language far earlier, derived from the verb piquer, to pick at something, and nique, a trifle, a bagatelle, something of scant importance. The first known, published use was in a 1649 collection of burlesque verse, naming a character who ate with gusto. Pique-nique then came to mean a shared meal. The English placed that meal outdoors. The French, grudgingly conceding the rightness of the concept, elevated the pique-nique to a gracious al fresco meal, often a romantic one.

They thought their pique-nique special, but people had been eating outside, the act unnamed, since the Middle Ages, when a picnic offered refreshment during a day-long hunt. All Omar Khayyam needed in the twelfth century was “A book of verse beneath the bough/A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.” Picnics were effortlessly sociable: it is easy to picture King Arthur at the laden table of a formal banquet, chin sunk into his hands, wondering, “What do the simple folk do?”

By the time the custom reached Victorian England, the goddesses of housewifery were ready with their menus: roast fowl, meat pies, pastries and jam puffs, fruit, cheese, household bread, a lavish amount of butter, plum cakes and sponge cakes. Coffee, they warned, was unsuitable for a picnic, which required warm weather and cool food. At the St. Louis World’s Fair, families packed hampers to save money and avoid the lines at the Chinese Village, the Streets of Cairo, the Irish Village, and the Tyrolean Restaurant. In the middle of stunning displays of human progress in the century since the Louisiana Purchase, a picnic must have felt especially welcome, returning you to nature, reminding you that you could still be self-reliant, and offering a reprieve from the crowds, the heat, the overstimulation.

For the Fourth of July, the Fair committee reserved the shady woods edging the enclosure and invited all “those who would enjoy an old fashioned Fourth to spread their basket dinners under the beautiful forest trees, where there is plenty of shade and an abundance of pure and wholesome water…. This will enable families and parties to enjoy a day’s outing, see the world’s fair and take part in the greatest patriotic celebration ever held in the country’s history. The picnic feature gives to the event a homelike touch.” These World’s Fair picnics continued well after the Fourth. Some families quenched their thirst first at the Palace of Agriculture, where the Borden Company had set up the largest condensed-milk factory in the world. Some no doubt grabbed picnic bread from the Pillsbury Flour Pavilion’s free sample trays. Their ice cream cones, that thrillingly sweet and sticky frozen invention, would have melted by the time they reached their picnic spot, but they could snack on the puffed rice that Quaker Oats was exploding from the barrels of cannons. And surely they were tempted by the pyramids of oranges and hybridized pomelos (later named grapefruit) from the coasts.

Years earlier, a reporter for the Atlantic Monthly had commended “the Germans of the lower classes” who came to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia with their lunches wrapped in newspaper. They carried these bundles to the German restaurant, called for a five-cent glass of beer, and unwrapped the day’s happenings. Americans should learn from this admirable frugality and its sense of fun, the reporter wrote: “We have too long trifled in habits of extravagance and waste, our sole idea of economy being a stern self-denial which cuts off luxury and enjoyment alike.”

A decade later, at the Paris Universal Exhibitions in 1889, a cartoonist drew picnickers plopping themselves down in the laps of Greek statues, atop pedestals, inside gardens. Prissy purists worried about this obnoxious public display, and the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier cringed: “Every day the Exposition alleys are converted into refectories, the lawns are turned into dining rooms…. We are not of those who look down on this amusing and philosophical spectacle of the crowd in want of salami and cheap wine. But we also think that the pleasure of eating has nothing to do with such kind of feasts. An Exposition in Paris, Capital of Taste and Queen of Cuisine, shall spare us from these scenes that suggest a people of lazzaroni, not a gourmet nation.”

I had to look it up. The Lazzaroni were the poorest in Naples, living on the street, begging for simple hunks of bread, and prone to act as a mob. And Escoffier was not yet finished disparaging: “The unfortunate visitor eats badly kept food that is carried all day in papers among melted cheese, mashed meals and overheated wine, all of this while poorly seated and stiff.”

Well, Monsieur Escoffier, we now have hampers and coolers and Yetis. Beyond that, a picnic needs no innovation. Fried chicken, potato salad, devilled eggs, ham sandwiches, chocolate cake—this is the wholesome, family-friendly American picnic. The French standard is sexier: baguette, Camembert, grapes, almonds, a bottle of wine, maybe a few petits fours if they promise not to melt. You can, of course, forego these careful assemblies of various tastes and textures. As Jane Austen writes in Emma, a picnic is simply “a cold collation,” and “any nonsense will serve.” But given that attitude, is it any wonder the picnics in Emma end in “ruffled tempers and hurt feelings”?

Care must be taken, even for the simplest of joys.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.