Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Well-Bred Picnic.

I will be at the beach later today, so my thoughts have inevitably turned to the great tradition of eating out of doors. In Australia nowadays - and am pretty sure elsewhere too – picnics are by design and necessity, pretty informal events. It seems that this was always the aim, even back in ‘the old country’ (Britain) in the nineteenth century when the picnic concept really began to capture the imagination.

The problem for the Victorians however was, of course, that they were so, well - Victorian - that they were unable to embrace wholeheartedly the concept of informality. The food was expected to be prodigious in quantity and variety, with few concessions to the outdoor venue, as we saw in a post some time ago which included Mrs Beeton’s suggested bill of fare for a picnic for forty persons. It seems to one Victorian food writer at least, that the reality of a picnic experience fell far short of the ideal. The writer was William Blanchard Jerrold, who was responsible for yesterday’s source, The Epicure’s Year Book and Table Companion. In the 1869 edition, Jerrold pleaded for ‘picnic reform’, and it appears that the attitudes of the picnic guests were a large part of the problem.

He writes:

Even the naturally disputatious will not dispute the fact, that half the picnics given under the uncertain sky of England, are failures. To begin with, it is difficult to get a good picnic party together. The thorough picnic nature is not common among us. We cannot unbend easily. It is with the greatest difficulty we loose the bow. Now, at a picnic, the company should be all not only genial, but sans-gêne. As Mademoiselle Schneider has pithily observed in Barbe Bleue, "Jusqu'il y a de la gêne, ily a pas de plaisir." I have had occasion to observe that the government of sans-gêne is one of the most difficult and delicate matters in the world. How far it is removed from rudeness, from familiarity, from " hail, fellow " coarseness, it is not given to all to measure justly. Safe sans-gêne is possible only in a company where all are well-bred. The underbred pass rapidly from playfulness to buffoonery. The laughter becomes loud that should only sparkle and bubble. At best, we make bad gipsies. But there is no reason why we should not endeavour to get at something like the reason why picnics are so often failures; and do away with it. Bores and gâte-joies are accidents which the most careful host cannot always eliminate from his company. A comic gentleman intrudes. A guest lives too well in presence of the champagne that he has espied lying in the ice-buckets, and buried in ferns. A prude finds fault with everything. An audacious lady shocks the dean. Your awkward visitor upsets the salad mixture - for salad mixtures have not yet been driven, as an abomination, out of the best regulated picnics. Somebody troubles the party with an attack of hysterics. There is the lady who is quite sure she cannot sit upon the grass. It is barely possible to escape the pest who screams at the approach of a June fly, and wants salts after the apparition of a caterpillar. But of all picnic nuisances, preserve me from the officious, awkward guest, who gives the wrong wines with unflagging assiduity. The provoking element in him is, that while he is rasping the temper of the company, he is in the seventh heaven of enjoyment himself.

One universal truth emerges from this opinion piece. Human nature does not change. A century and a half later, we have all met Jerrold’s guests, whether at picnics or corporate dinners or neighbourhood barbeques, have we not?

Jerrold continues his article with an opinion on ‘picnic gastronomy’, which we shall save for another day.

The recipe for the day comes from Cookery for English households, by a French lady, published in London in 1864, and a very elegant picnic contribution it would make to a thoroughly English picnic.

Melt, over a very moderate fire, half a pound of fresh butter; add gradually a pound of flour and as much pounded sugar, with a little grated lemon peel; when it is warm, remove the pan from the fire and break into it eight eggs, which you mix thoroughly with the other ingredients. Fill up with this preparation some small buttered moulds, and set them in the oven. Twenty minutes' baking is sufficient.
Madeleines when shut up in boxes and put in a dry place may keep for a month.

1 comment:

Keith said...

I used to love picnics. It was the only time I ever got to spend time with my father other than through work since I was a kid.