Part of the charm of the picnic is that it partakes of the conjurer's art. Food in the dining room is expected, but a feast in a meadow is magic.
The hiker with his protein mix and pocket full of dried fruit and the small child gooey with jelly -- delighted that there is no table to be excused from -- are picnickers on the lower end of the scale. But there are others who do not equate dining outdoors with dining simply. At its most elaborate, the formal picnic was described by Elizabeth David in Summer Cooking :
"On picnic days a large party of children and grownups would be assembled in the hall. Led by our host and hostess we proceeded through the exquisite formal Dutch garden, across the lane and over a fence into a coppice. Close on our heels followed the butler, the chauffeur and a number of vast dishes containing cold chickens, jellies and trifles. Arrived at the end of our journey, five minutes from the house, our host set about making a fire, with sticks which I suspect had been strategically placed by the gardener, over which we grilled quantities of sausage and bacon, which were devoured amidst the customary jokes and hilarity. The picnickers' honor thus satisfied, we took our places for an orderly meal, handed round by the footman and in composition resembling that of an Edwardian wedding breakfast." f
Modern-day variations of such alfresco feasts can be observed all spring at the hunt races, where tailgate picnics take up the lull between races. In summer, the scene of the outdoor banquet moves to Wolf Trap, where some meals are so elaborate that a chicken sandwich would hide in shame.
Last year I ran into a friend at the Wolf Trap production of "The Flying Dutchman" and when we talked the next day it was not about the opera, but about the food. Their host had provided them with cold black bean soup flavored with rum, handed around in little enamel coffee cups, as a first course; this was followed by a salad of pasta shells dressed with a basil-flavored tomato sauce and topped with vegetables. Then came cheese and fruit and finally homemade ice-cream, which their host had somehow managed to keep from melting all over the picnic cloth.
Not everyone puts such effort into opera picnics. More commonly it's a group effort with everyone paying their own way onto the lawn and contributing one dish to the meal. Invite enough people and you might wind up with Mrs. Beeton's "Bill of Fare for a Picnic for Forty Persons":
"A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, two ribs of lamb, two shoulders of lamb, four roast fowls, two roast ducks, one ham, one tongue, two veal-and-ham pies, two pigeon pies, six medium-sized lobsters, one piece of collared calf's head, 18 lettuces, six baskets of salad, six cucumbers.
"Stewed fruit well sweetened, and put into glass bottles well corked; three or four dozen plain pastry biscuits to eat with the stewed fruit, two dozen fruit turnovers, four dozen cheesecakes, two cold Cabinet puddings in moulds, a few jam puffs, one large cold Christmas plum-pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, three dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, six pounds of butter (this, of course, includes the butter for tea), four quartern loaves of household bread, three dozen rolls, six loaves of tin bread (for tea), two plain plum cakes, two pound cakes, two sponge cakes, a tin of mixed buscuits, half a pound of tea.
"Coffee is not suitable for a picnic, being difficult to make."