Foodways

No Ants Were Harmed At These Picnics Of The Past

Two couples having a picnic during the '50s. i i

Two couples having a picnic during the '50s. George Marks/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption George Marks/Getty Images
Two couples having a picnic during the '50s.

Two couples having a picnic during the '50s.

George Marks/Getty Images

When summertime rolls around, we're all for eating outdoors, but the American heyday of the picnic may very well have been the 1950s.

Convenience food was newly popular; many mothers stayed home and had time to pack everything just right. Tupperware was taking off, picnic tables popped up on roadsides, and an outing in the fresh country air was often just what the doctor ordered.

In this undated photo, a couple breaks a wishbone at a picnic during the Cotton Festival in Hayti, Mo. i i

In this undated photo, a couple breaks a wishbone at a picnic during the Cotton Festival in Hayti, Mo. Library of Congress hide caption

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In this undated photo, a couple breaks a wishbone at a picnic during the Cotton Festival in Hayti, Mo.

In this undated photo, a couple breaks a wishbone at a picnic during the Cotton Festival in Hayti, Mo.

Library of Congress

And both the meal and the company could be customized to the hosts' tastes. "The picnic may be a romantic dejeuner sur l'herbe for two, or a gathering of the clan; it may be simple as a sandwich in wax paper, or as elaborate as appetite, inclination and purse will allow," wrote epicure James Beard in his 1960 Treasury of Outdoor Cooking.

Of course, his picnic style was pretty elaborate, requiring "the largest linen dinner napkins I have" and "good china plates" to go with meals like "Thermos of chilled martinis, olives, nuts, celery sticks, cold broiled chicken halves, Bermuda onion sandwiches on homemade bread, chilled peeled tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, apples or peaches," and last but not least, strong coffee.

A stable hand and a trainer eat a picnic lunch before the Shelby County Horse Show and Fair, Shelbyville, Ky. i i

A stable hand and a trainer eat a picnic lunch before the Shelby County Horse Show and Fair, Shelbyville, Ky. LIbrary of Congress hide caption

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A stable hand and a trainer eat a picnic lunch before the Shelby County Horse Show and Fair, Shelbyville, Ky.

A stable hand and a trainer eat a picnic lunch before the Shelby County Horse Show and Fair, Shelbyville, Ky.

LIbrary of Congress

But other mid-century picnic notions, like this 1950s Armour poultry ad, could involve a few beers, some cold fried or roasted chicken, corn on the cob and maybe a slice of cherry pie. Even the stable hand and horse trainer appear to be enjoying their simple improvised meal. We were wondering: What's in those tin cups?

Fried or roasted, chicken is popular at picnics. Armour poultry recipes, 1953 i i

Fried or roasted, chicken is popular at picnics. Armour poultry recipes, 1953 alsis35/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption alsis35/Flickr
Fried or roasted, chicken is popular at picnics. Armour poultry recipes, 1953

Fried or roasted, chicken is popular at picnics. Armour poultry recipes, 1953

alsis35/Flickr

The families that so often appeared in the ads from this era were happy and carefree. The couples were young and mostly white.

Even when it rains, high school sweethearts can have a picnic. Published in Family Circle, 1953. i i

Even when it rains, high school sweethearts can have a picnic. Published in Family Circle, 1953. classic_film/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption classic_film/Flickr
Even when it rains, high school sweethearts can have a picnic. Published in Family Circle, 1953.

Even when it rains, high school sweethearts can have a picnic. Published in Family Circle, 1953.

classic_film/Flickr

Two teens somehow make sharing celery and Morton salt look romantic in a picnic in the rain.

Picnics are not a 20th century invention. In fact, they have been paths of escape to the outdoors for centuries — think of the 19th century picnics of Jane Austen novels, with servants and candelabras and oriental rugs.

And it's far from a uniquely American tradition. The Japanese have their bento boxes and the Indians pack up tiffins to transport food to wherever they want to eat it.

So no matter what you pack for you picnic or what you pack it in, get out of the house and enjoy the brief escape from the ordinary.

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