The Art of the Picnic

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I like to think we all have happy picnics as part of our childhood memories. They seem like something everyone should do. I remember specific scenes of my family spread out on the old heirloom quilt, eating sub sandwiches in the grass at Maymont Park or in the shade of old cannons at Fort Monroe. Even if it was hot or windy, 7-year-old me liked the opportunity to eat on the ground for some reason. I think we enjoy it because it is simultaneously something new and different, yet casual.

That was basically the entirety of it in my head: sandwiches in the park. I’ll never forget, though, the moment when I started to view picnics differently. It was a passage from Julia Child’s My Life in France that changed everything for me:

photograph from the book, pg 41

“The cloudy gray sky broke open and turned blue, the air was vigorously cool, and the sun shone brightly. After an hour or so of hiking, we broke out a picnic basket brimming with sausages, hard-boiled eggs, baguettes, pâtisseries, and a bottle of Moselle wine. We ate lying against twisted gray rocks covered with emerald-green moss. Except for the yawping crows in the beech trees, we were the only ones in that enchanted place.”

I had never imagined such a perfect scene as possible in real life, but there it was. Julia was living out an ideal afternoon. In my mind, the vast majority of beautiful experiences, and thereby memories, are centered around food, so I was intrigued at the possibility that perhaps Subway and Aquafina were not the extent of outdoor eating experiences worldwide. Why not make this occasion a more memorable event?

Several years have passed since then, and I have grown fonder of the outdoors and exploring the different scenes in my area. At the same time I have also acquired more resources and intel into how to create the ideal picnic. So I thought I would share a little of what I have learned with you, as my picnics are now renowned (I’m quite the converter when it comes to eating outside). Let’s get into it, these are my 4 pillars of picnicking for real:

1. The View

The environment, in my opinion, is perhaps the most crucial element to a picnic. This is the point of the thing, the reason you’re not eating your meal in your house. Yes, true, fresh air and all that, but location can elevate any occasion. Whether it’s a clearing along a local trail, a grassy park, the beach, this is a chance to explore.

***For those that happen to live in the Tidewater region of Virginia (757 represent), click here for my top 10 favorite spots***

I’ve also had my share of indoor picnics in the case of rain. I had a tea party on my bedroom floor just last week. Maybe get a few candles, play some music (my picnic playlist is just below) and create a special moment in a familiar space.

2. The Gear

If you go on a picnic or two and decide you’d like to make it a regular thing in your life, I HIGHLY recommend investing in some real gear. What does this mean? It doesn’t have to be complicated, and all of this can definitely be found second-hand at thrift or antique shops.

-a blanket: You can always go classic gingham (I almost got in a real fight with a woman at Goodwill in the process of claiming mine. A story for another time.), but really it’s whatever suits you. Just big enough to provide some space and sturdy enough that all the dew on the ground doesn’t go right though.

-dishes: There’s something so special about this small level of ceremony. Paper plates and napkins get the job done, but bringing out actual plates and silverware (I also have a small wooden cutting board) makes for such a lovely sight. Remember, this is a multi-sensory experience (see point 1.), so why not let this part be pretty too? I opt for colorful plastic as it’s lighter to carry and more durable.

-wine glasses: Not only does this usually mean there is wine nearby, glasses bring a level of sophistication that makes you take it slow. I always bring water, but will often chill some tea or wine to put next to it. A note: go stemless. Not only is this more European and therefore closer to the Julia Child fantasy, but it’s much more practical when on uneven ground.

-a basket: This is basically the quintessential way to let the world know that you’re having the time of your life. It’s THE thing, the best way to bring your picnic accoutrements to your destination. They bring me so much joy. Just make sure the handle has enough strength to support the weight of all the deliciousness.

Speaking of which...

me and my beloved basket

3. The FOOD

The whole reason we are here. This is the part where I like to get the most creative; the possibilities are endless.

Most of the time, especially in a time crunch (an emergency picnic?) I go along the lines of a cheese board or charcuterie board. They’re classic, simple and lovely; mine usually include these elements:

-cheese: at least 2 types. one hard and one soft (I LOVE brie).

-salami: sliced however.

-bread: baguette, focaccia, croissant, etc. crackers can also work in a pinch.

-fruit: whatever is in season. berries, apples, and stone fruits are my favorites.

-extras: olives, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, nuts, dried fruits, chocolate.

-spreadables: jam or honey.

-drink: wine, tea, sparkling water.

Sometimes, though, I’ll get a little fancy and make something more involved. This usually takes the form of a galette, a sweet or savory rustic tart that sounds way more complicated than it is. Here’s the link to the “recipe” I use; it’s a great way to use whatever veggies you may have and it creates a lovely presentation. I also like a fresh arugula salad dressed with some lemon.

A veggie galette and arugula salad.

Aside from a suggestion to steer clear of things that need a lot of refrigeration, there are no rules here!

4. The Company

I know I may have made it sound like the food makes the picnic, but really it’s the company. The time spent with them.

This could be yourself, picnic for one; a time to enjoy your time alone. You could bring a book or some watercolors and spend a relaxing afternoon solo.

Or it could be a date, a romantic affair.

Or time spent with family. Or friends. Or your dog. Or anyone you want to get to know better.

Like I said in the beginning, picnics are inherently casual even if you have wine glasses, and therefore break down quite a bit of social barriers and expectations. I can’t tell you how many of my picnics have turned into hours-long conversations that let me get to know someone in a new way.

This is the joy of the picnic: it is a celebration, not just of the scenery or even the food, but of each other and making space in our lives to enjoy one another.

If you need any more picnic inspiration, here is a fun pinterest board dedicated to it, and here is my instagram in case you want to follow mine. Also, below you’ll find my playlist of tunes to listen to in the car on the way to a picnic.

So there you have it, my guidelines. If you’ve never really taken anyone on a picnic, might I suggest this weekend?

Until then, jazz on.



@2019 by Anna Perkins