The Evolution of the Perfect Picnic
When you enjoy a cold drink on your patio while the savory smell of something grilling over an open flame wafts through the air, you are not so far from the members of a Medieval hunting party who held hunting feasts for sustenance and celebration, drinking mead and socializing in the great outdoors.
Throughout history, people have gathered in the sunlight or beneath the stars for food and wine and entertainment. Even today’s most elegant outdoor settings with lush scapes and cushioned sectionals feature traces of the outdoor social gatherings of those who came before us. Here are some common elements we enjoy in today’s picnic and their western Euro-American origins.
From the Victorian-era picnic – hardscape and the garden bench
Ancient Greeks created patios with paved walking surfaces, benches and shade trees. The Bacchanalia, Roman festivals of Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture and wine (copied from the Greek god Dionysus), were held in remote forest settings. Countless works of art have depicted bacchanal celebrations that today might land you “al fresco”. The phrase al fresco is borrowed from Italian meaning “in the cool [air]”, but it’s not actually used in Italian to refer to dining outside. In Italian, the expression “al fresco” (in the cool) usually refers to spending time in jail, like we say “in the cooler” for prison. Italians use the phrases “fuori” (out) or “all’aperto” (outdoor). Spaniards use “al aire libre” to refer to dining outdoors.
The word “picnic” did not appear until the 18th century. In its early incarnation, a picnic originally meant a gathering at which everyone was expected to contribute something, whether it was food or entertainment. The French word “pique-nique” was used to describe people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. Over time, the picnic evolved to include eating outdoors.
From the 1700’s – table linens
During the 1700s, aristocrats had yards as part of their vast estates. The upper class citizens of England’s Victorian-era enjoyed picnics that were grand affairs featuring tables, linens, crystal, and carefully prepared meals. The Somerset cast aluminum outdoor furniture collection, with its classical curves, pays homage to design cues of the period.
From the early 1800’s – outdoor games
In the 1800s, many commoner citizens in urban settings used their small outdoor areas to play croquet or horseshoes.
From the mid-1800’s – the picnic blanket
Many famous paintings depict the idyllic picnic setting. The Picnic, an oil painting by French painter James Tissot painted in 1876, shows how the perfect picnic is often imagined: a lush outdoor setting, a feast spread out on a blanket, and a sense of relaxation despite the formal clothing.
Claude Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1865-6) is an impressionist vision of a perfect picnic, with wine, fruit, and white china dinnerware, in a sun-dappled spot beneath the trees. Wine and fruit are also part of Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81). The subjects of the painting dine al fresco beneath a striped awning and, based on the casual poses, appear to have already enjoyed a glass or two of wine. (It’s easy to imagine those in attendance at the Boating Party pulling up their chairs to the Coast Extension Table, an outdoor teak dining table that reflects the relaxed elegance of Renoir’s painting.)
These famous paintings of picnics can provide color inspiration for any would-be outdoor decorator. The oranges and yellows and rich browns of James Tissot’s The Picnic could be echoed with cushions in Dimone Sequoia and Fife Dune. A Monet lover might take inspiration from Luncheon on the Grass, choosing the unstructured green, yellow and blue pattern of Movement Citrus and a strong pop of bold blue from Decree Cobalt. Or echo the blues and oranges found in Renoir’s Luncheon on the Boating Party and pair white and tangerine (Guardian Tangerine) with Decree Cobalt.
From American Westward Expansion – the guitar
Dining all’aperto is not just born of enjoyment but also of necessity. American settlers traveling west in covered wagons had their own outdoor meals, for reasons more practical than romantic, of course. Along the way, they would stop for the evening and enjoy meals around a fire. Often, someone would bring out a fiddle to provide entertainment, or everyone would gather around for the ancient art of storytelling. This ritual of ending the evening with a meal and conversation around a fire continues to this day in homes across the country. And today’s savvy outdoor entertainers have a playlist at the ready to play through Bluetooth outdoor speakers.
From Mid Century to Modern – the Webber grill & Wrought Iron Patio Furniture
In America, in the 1930s, families of means began to install brick barbecues. During World War II, when gas and food was rationed, the backyard barbecue became popular as an affordable way to entertain outdoors. But it was the 1950s, with its post-war suburban boom, that truly ushered in what we think of as modern outdoor entertaining. In that same decade, George Weber invented the kettle-style charcoal grill. Backyard barbecues became a beloved American tradition for celebrating holidays and time with family. The patio furniture was made up of primarily outdoor dining sets with little or no cushions. These were crafted of tubular metal and vinyl strap, and later wrought iron with expanded mesh tables.
From the Colonial Era to Today’s Modern Outdoor Room
Many modern homeowners give as much thought to their outdoor areas as they do to the interior of the house. Patios and porches are seen as extensions of the home, outdoor “rooms” to be furnished with comfortable chairs and tables, lamps and accessories.
Dinner parties around a formal dining table can easily be moved outside instead, creating casual gatherings around a fire pit with a view of the night sky. The trend of outdoor kitchens with built-in gas grills and refrigerators for chilling beverages has made outdoor entertaining as convenient as indoor entertaining.
An all’aperto dining experience is always about so much more than food. A comfortable outdoor setting encourages guests to linger, indulging in conversation and libations well into the evening. Here we list some new and modern elements to add to make your outdoor room entertainment more customizable, personable, and comfortable.
1. Euro Dining: The Athena Collection and the Charleston Collection, with Euro height seating and tables, are both designed for enjoying conversations for longer periods of time. A Euro height dining table is lower than a typical table. The Euro height chairs, also lower to the ground, put visitors in a relaxed posture that is less formal than a typical dining chair. No matter the type of chairs in your outdoor space, thick, comfortable seat cushions will encourage relaxed conversation.
2. Performance Fabrics: For the picnics and al fresco parties of centuries past, indoor items were pulled outside for comfort – a blanket from the bed spread out on the grass, a tablecloth from the dining room draped over a picnic table. Now outdoor fabrics provide all those indoor luxuries while also standing up to the elements. They don’t rot or fade and their colors remain steadfast. Summer Classics offers a variety of colors and designs to create any desired style.
3. New Shade Products: Today’s homeowner can shade their patio with modern umbrellas and other alternatives having many features. The Crank Auto Tilt Patio Umbrella comes in 9 ft. and 11ft. options and can be paired with a stylish base, like the Florentine Cast Iron Outdoor Umbrella Base or the Cast Wicker Aluminum Umbrella Base.)
4. Lighting: Outdoor lamps are another modern convenience that revelers of old didn’t have. Lamplight can set a mood and take al fresco dining from day to night. Outdoor lamps are specially made to withstand the elements. For parties that spill out into the yard, consider stringing paper lanterns or twinkling strands of light from tree limbs or place citronella candles on end tables. Large lanterns are an especially stylish way to provide glowing candlelight that gives any outdoor meal tasteful ambience.
5. Mosquito Control: Set up an outdoor fan to keep mosquitos at bay. Setting out a basket of colorful handheld fans does the job of looking like a pretty decoration while also offering guests a way to cool off when needed.
6. Weatherproof Storage: For frequent outdoor entertainers, it can be worth it to invest in storage pieces for your outdoor space. Keep citronella candles, sturdy dinnerware, and other items handy. For pool owners, a towel caddy can do double duty as towel storage and a side table for holding cocktails. Or several can be stacked to create shelving.
7. Multifunctional Accent Tables: Consider adding a rolling cart or a console table, such as the Cahaba Console Table, to your outdoor space. You can use it as a spot to set up a serving area or to display the things you’ll need for the meal (linens, condiments, additional bottles of wine).