Cornies: Paying the price for the lost art of picnicking

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Among my family’s photographs is one taken no later than about 1962.

We are seated at a roadside picnic table somewhere along Highway 3, bound for the Niagara Peninsula in the days before Highway 401 between Tilbury and London was complete.

My parents are nearest the camera; behind them are my two brothers and me. Green and white trash barrels, wired to some pieces of angle iron, indicate it is a provincially maintained picnic area.

A few pages of the Windsor Star serve as a tablecloth (waste not, want not) and set out on the wide tabletop are baked goods (likely raisin bread and sweet rolls), a Thermos of coffee and a bottle of milk.

We are at breakfast (my father believed in getting an early start). And we are on vacation. It was the only time my parents bought breakfast cereals in those single-portion boxes — the kind where, if you cut carefully along the dotted lines, you could pour milk directly into the box.

The trip, even this morning roadside picnic, is clearly an occasion. We are all dressed in our casual best.

The photographer? It had to be my maternal grandmother, along for the ride so she could visit relatives “out east.”

Picnics were commonplace in our family, either at the backyard table my father had built or at some other locale.

However, our family picnics were usually connected to some other event — a family reunion, a church social, a road trip.

Whether for breakfast, lunch or supper, the picnic meal was a novel substitute for a necessity. It was a meal in a pastoral setting en route to, or in combination with, some other activity.

It was my mother-in-law for whom the picnic was the destination, rather than an add-on to something else. For Merle, picnicking was an art form — as was almost everything else that happened in her tiny kitchen.

Inside Merle’s wicker baskets, carefully covered with dish towels, were sweet pickles, egg salad and salmon salad sandwiches, a homemade potato salad, and julienne vegetables.

Each sandwich had been prepared and cut diagonally the night before, wrapped in waxed paper, then set side by side and refrigerated inside the plastic bags in which the bread had been bought, creating a loaf of sandwiches.

For dessert, there were tropical bars or cookies, still cooling from the oven. To drink, soda or lemonade, and a Thermos of coffee.

The spread wasn’t complete without a tablecloth (checkered, naturally). And in the cavernous trunk of my father-in-law’s Buick Electra, there were always at least four lawn chairs and a picnic blanket, perpetually at the ready.

As part-owner and manager of a fertilizer company, Jack spent many Sunday afternoons travelling the rural roads of Southwestern Ontario, gazing over farmers’ fields. And he knew where all the best highway-side picnic spots were. (The province still maintains a total of 31 picnic sites in Southwestern Ontario.)

The picnic, as we knew it then, has become something of a lost art. The languid, homemade summer picnic has been displaced by the backyard deck, expensive multi-burner gas grills, red meat, charred veggies, fast food, electric coolers, patio coolers, overhead awnings, gazebos and cushioned lounge sets that put the old folding lawn chairs to shame, let alone that old standby from the 1970s, the hibachi.

The cocooning trend that began in the 1980s has gone upscale. Some of our decks and patios are more elaborately equipped than our kitchens and dining rooms. And we dare not venture too far from our digital devices, our big-screen TVs and the reach of our Wi-Fi signals.

Old-fashioned picnickers haven’t entirely escaped the trend toward the posh either.

Fortnum and Mason, a British brand, will happily sell you a double-lidded wicker “celebration picnic basket” that includes four glass champagne flutes inside their own wicker holders, gold-rimmed green and white china plates, stainless steel cutlery, a bottle holder and small insulated bag, a bottle stop and opener, white linen napkins, salt and pepper grinders, cheeseboard and knife and a waterproof drawstring bag for the dirty dishes. “And there’s still room for a small picnic,” their promo material says.

The price? Just over $540, plus shipping.

Yes, our backyards have become our summer sanctuaries. And, to be honest, those old-fashioned picnics had their drawbacks, too — pesky insects and pop-up thundershowers among them.

But nothing quite says summer like a homemade picnic, packed with care, taken to a secluded location in some natural environment, and shared there with friends or family — without a single BTU, pixel or Wi-Fi signal to mediate the experience.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist.

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