In 1803, the latest fad was a Pic Nic Supper. It was not the same sort of event that we associated today with the word ‘picnic’ however. The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year explains:
This season has been marked by a new species of entertainment, common to the fashionable world, called a Pic Nic supper. Of the derivation of the word, or who was the inventor, we profess ourselves ignorant, but the nature of it we can inform our readers is as follows:
A Pic Nic supper consists of a variety of dishes. The subscribers to the entertainment have a bill of fare presented to them, with a number against each dish. The lot which he draws obliges hm to furnish the dish marked against it, which he either takes with him in his carriage, or sends by a servant. The proper variety is preserved by the talents of the maître d’hotel, who forms the bil of fare.
And here is another perspective, from 1826.
I believe pic-nic is originally a cant word, and was first applied to a supper or other meal in which the entertainment is not provided by any one person, but each of the guests furnishes his dish. In a pic-nic supper one supplies the fowls, another the fish, another the wine and fruit, &c.; and they all sit down together and enjoy it. A very sociable way of making an entertainment Yes, and I would have you observe that the principle of it may be extended to many other things. No one has a right to be entertained gratis in society; he must expend if he wishes to enjoy.— Conversation, particularly, is a picnic feast, where every one is to contribute something, according to his genius and ability. Different talents and acquirements compose the different dishes of the entertainment, and the greater variety the better; but even one must bring something, for society will not tolerate any one long who lives wholly at the expense of his neighbours.
The Works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld
It seems, then, that there were no dishes made specifically for picnics, although presumably then as now, it would be sensible to prepare ones that were easy to transport.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the picnic had evolved into an outdoor meal, much as we know it now, although the food is more complex, as was the Victorian way. Here are some ideas for picnic food from Commonsense Papers on Cookery (1877.)
We will run hastily through the ordinary picnic dishes, with a word or two to say on each.
First, cold lamb and mint sauce. Bear in mind that the former is very apt to turn quickly, in hot weather, especially if packed close, or put in a hamper near the top exposed to the sun. Pepper the joint, and wrap it up in cool cabbage-leaves. The mint sauce must be put in a small bottle, a stone ginger-beer bottle being as good as anything.
Second, lobster salad. This of course is dressed on the ground. Take care, however, in packing the lobsters, that they do not impart a fishy flavour to everything else. A few hard-boiled eggs should be taken to garnish the salad.
Pigeon pie. A good pigeon pie ought to have plenty of gravy, and this gravy when cold should be properly a firm jelly. I recollect once in a picnic the pigeon pie had leaked, and the gravy had soaked quite through the table-cloth, which had been placed folded up near it in the hamper. Now a very little trouble would have avoided this in making the gravy for the pie, bearing in mind the time of year, and how unlikely gravy is to set firm unless made exceedingly strong. All the cook has to do is to put in a little gelatine. This will insure the gravy being firm when cold.
A cucumber properly dressed is an exceedingly nice accompaniment to cold fowl and cold meat in hot weather, and perhaps never appears to better advantage than at a picnic.
And let us not forget the picnic beverages. The author suggests claret cup:
I have already given directions how to make claret-cup. When claret-cup is required for a picnic, it will be found best to take ready mixed in a small bottle some plain syrup, and also in another bottle a little sherry, brandy, and noyeau, mixed in the proportions I named before. All, therefore, that is required is a strip of the peel from the cucumber and a slice of lemon to be added to a bottle of claret, the mixed wine and spirit out of the bottle next, a little syrup, a lump of ice, and a couple of bottles of soda-water to finish with.
And here are her lengthy instructions for claret-cup.
It is impossible to make a good cup out of really bad claret. I do not mean cheap claret, but sour. It is quite possible to get a good sound wine for twenty-four shillings a dozen, or even less; but at the same time it is quite possible to pay more, and get a sour compound that would be unfit for cup or any other purpose. On the other hand, to use really good claret, such as Chateau Margaux or Chateau Latour, for making cup, would be as bad as using 1834 port to make negus.
Perhaps the most difficult point to determine in making claret-cup is its sweetness. Now, as this is purely a matter of taste, I would recommend persons to err on the side of too little sugar rather than too much, as it is always easy to add, but impossible to take away.
Take therefore about an ounce and a half of white sugar, and dissolve it by pouring a table-spoonful of hot water on it, and afterwards adding a little claret. I have always found this plan best, as otherwise the sugar is apt to settle at the bottom of the cup or jug, thereby often making the compound not quite sweet enough at starting, and a great deal too sweet at the finish.
We will suppose, therefore, that the sugar is completely dissolved, and added to a whole bottle of claret in the jug or cup selected for the purpose. Add two thin slices of lemon — cut across the lemon, care being taken to avoid any pips — and one thin slice of cucumber-peeling about as long and as broad as the first finger, and the thickness of the blade of a dinner-knife. Next add one sherry-glassful of sherry, one table-spoonful of good brandy — not some of that dreadful cheap brandy that smells like naphtha — and one table-spoonful of noyeau or maraschino. Rub a nutmeg about half a dozen times across the grater over the cup.
Let the cup stand for about a quarter of an hour, and then taste it. Should the flavour of the cucumber be very decided, take out the piece of cucumber; and the same as regards the lemon. Should the flavour of the peel of the lemon be detected, take out the two slices of lemon, for lemons vary immensely in strength.
Now add a large lump of ice and a bottle of soda- water, taking care to pour the latter in carefully – i.e - to put the soda-water bottle almost into the cup. I have seen persons pour the soda water from a height, thereby losing half the carbonic-acid gas, which ought to go into the cup to freshen it up, so to speak.
All that the cup now requires is drinking. It is by no means a very cheap affair, as the sherry, brandy, and noyeau probably cost more than the claret.