Picnics: A Performance of Leisure

by Brett F. Braley-Palko 

PITTSBURGH – It is Ferragosto today, the mid-way point of August. This is my favorite time of year. That is because I am, admittedly, an opportunist. I take advantage of the temperate evening and late sunsets. I throw an old blanket into a pasture and sprawl out with a sandwich. I cancel all appointments on those afternoons. As W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.” I tend to agree.

Le Dejeuner sur l herbe

At its most basic elements, a picnic is an informal meal en plein air. But, throughout the centuries, representations of the picnic have interpreted this definition in a multitude of ways. From the Musée d’Orsay to Brideshead Revisited to Mad Men, each has depicted picnicking through the cultural lens of the period it is representing.

Deborah_Mitford_Duchess_of_Devonshire_with_family

Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, her family and dogs

Whether it is out of the boot of a Land Rover or a cigarette and strawberries à la Sebastian Flyte, there is something inherently romantic about picnicking. It is an art form. And like all good art, there’s not just one way to do it. And yet still, one can always recognize when a picnic is done right. The devil is in the details.

Having its origins as a country house affair among the aristocracy, the picnic – at its core – should be a relaxed occasion. No agenda set, no lawn games to keep the hands idle. A tipped hat over one’s eyes and a lukewarm bottle of champagne to sip when parched are all that is needed. Planning is unnecessary;  it is the company and the sunshine that matter.

mad-men-picnic

It is this intimacy that has often intrigued me most in literature, what has shaped my personal ideal of passion. Again and again, I return back to Brideshead Revisited as the epitome of romantic leisure. Two bodies sharing one square of fabric, alone but for the birdsong. This image of restful affection, so often found in art and literature, is a hallmark of a picnic. To be alone in nature with a companion – there is nothing quite like it. These are the moments to keep private, to share secrets. When my husband (then boyfriend) and I celebrated my 25th birthday on a picnic on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, it was the moment I knew I would marry him. The only thing missing was a teddy bear.

Brideshead 2

Today, in the age of Instagram and the advent of #slowliving, many people believe that picnics are the tableau on which to showcase a clever recipe. While for many this may be the case, I find a picnic menu to be nearly ascetic. Grab some jam, buy some bread, take a handful of fruit and boil a few eggs. You won’t be full, but you’ll be satisfied, sleepily munching on a bit of crust in the shade.

I opt for intimacy over crowds, for open air versus dining rooms. I daydream in sunshine. And as the vulpine head of August begins to bow to the shaggy waddle of September, I am making excuses to stay outside longer. The cool evenings, the toffee-colored sunsets. It is Ferragosto and I am already packing my basket for the weekend.

Edwardian picnic

Edwardian picnic

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