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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Memorial Day weekend - the unofficial start of summer, which means trips to the beach, ball games and, of course, picnics. All this summer, WEEKEND EDITION will be bringing you fresh takes on great portable foods - recipes included. Seasonal ingredients that you can buy at a supermarket or a farmer's market, prepare at home and still have enough time to stake out your favorite picnic spot. Today, we kick off the series with a bit of picnic history. Lynn Olver is a research librarian and a food historian. She's also the brain behind the website FoodTimeline.org. Lynn, thanks so much for being with us.

LYNN OLVER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, before we get to the basket itself, what do we know about the origins of the picnic?

OLVER: Well, picnic as we know it today descends from upper-class recreational al fresco dining. And back in the day, you had medieval hunting feasts, Elizabethan country parties and 19th century Victorian repasts.

MARTIN: We're talking full table settings and crystal. What was on the menu in those early days?

OLVER: The original definition of the word picnic denoted something like a potluck. So, you would have a bunch of people getting together and each would be contributing to the feast. So, you would have baked ham and meat pies and all sorts of cakes and tea and ale. And one of the earliest accounts we have of picnicking is Robin Hood and his Merry Men. They often went to inns or they went to street vendors and they would dine informally under the trees. And after they dined, they napped.

MARTIN: So, now, we get to the basket part of it. When does that come into picnicking?

OLVER: Well, woven baskets have been used to port food from the very earliest times forward. And art depicting the early picnics depict baskets of different shapes and sizes. The largest one seemed to resemble trunks, and that might be where we get the picnic hamper from. Picnic basket kits, having placeholders for dishes and silverware and glasses and napkins actually begin to appear at the very dawn of the 20th century. And now we have party coolers on wheels.

MARTIN: So, as someone who has studied this a lot, do you have a favorite strategy for eating al fresco?

OLVER: I'm a Coleman cooler girl.

MARTIN: Nice.

OLVER: So, I have a Coleman cooler, which is 20 years old and has been brought on vacations and baseball games. And we still use it today now when we tailgate.

MARTIN: Food historian Lynn Olver. You can hear our summer picnic series - and get some great recipes, by the way - all this summer on WEEKEND EDITION. Hey, Lynn, thanks so much. Happy summer. Happy picnicking.

OLVER: You're welcome. You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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