Hundreds of years ago the word picnic was thus defined: “an assembly of young people of both sexes, at a tavern, where everyone pays his club." However, during the Victorian era the food for a picnic was usually prepared at home and taken to the place selected for a common meeting of friends and neighbors. A 19th century newspaper jokingly laid down rules for those considering such an excursion -- "how to have a Victorian picnic":
*Never take food to a picnic. *Take plenty of wholesome drink and something to drink it from. *Never go a great distance. *Never take very young children. *Do not stay long. *Have a hearty meal as soon as you get home.
There were many families, in both city and country, who could not leave their homes for long vacations, but who could afford to lose a day's work now and then, and would gain much benefit from a weekly excursion, provided it could be comfortably arranged. The success or failure of a good old-fashioned Victorian picnic depended mainly upon an ample supply of the right kinds of food and drink. When several families participated in a picnic, it was arranged beforehand for each to provide one article, thus lessening the labor all around.
The success of a picnic also depended upon the way the meal was packed, and a good strong basket was crucial. Grape baskets and paper boxes had one advantage as food containers for a Victorian picnic -- they did not need to be brought home. A square basket usually packed better than a round one, but either was used. Each article was packed solidly and wrapped by itself in a napkin or paraffin paper. For a long excursion, tin cocoa or cracker boxes were better than napkins or paper, as the food dried less.
It was felt that although good manners and comfortable seating were essential at a Victorian picnic, china and silver were out of place; he who could not do without them had better stay at home. It was recommended to never bring nice napkins, silver, china cups, or plates not only because they may be broken, but if lost it would cause a long tiresome hunt for an article which refused to be found, and thus a day's pleasure was spoiled. Wooden or paper plates, such as grocers and bakers used, were sufficient -- they weighed little and did not add much to the load. Moreover, they could be left behind when the day was done. Tissue paper napkins were used, as well as a large sheet of clean, white or brown paper for a tablecloth. The only other table utensils required were a sharp knife, a fork, a few spoons, and a tin drinking cup for each person, salt and pepper boxes, and a can opener.
Whatever else went into a Victorian picnic basket, sandwiches formed an important part of its contents. The sandwiches were varied to almost any number of kinds. If the party contained many children the sandwiches for them would be made more with the object of satisfying their hearty appetites than of being pretty or dainty. For the children, for instance, whole wheat bread was used and not cut too thin, with the crust left on.
For others, several varieties of bread were available: the ordinary white loaf, a day or two old, or the brown loaf made of whole wheat flour, or thin "quick biscuit” made with cream of tartar and baking powder. Loaf bread would be buttered before slicing, as then a much thinner slice could be cut. For aesthetic sandwiches for afternoon teas the butter was often flavored by putting it away in a covered jar on a bed of violets or rose leaves, or other sweet scented flowers, but picnic parties were usually too hungry to care for such fine touches. Sometimes it was better to trim off the crusts, but if the bread was properly mixed and baked, the crust gave additional flavor instead of detracting from the quality of the sandwich. Bread dried so rapidly when sliced, that sandwiches which were not to be eaten immediately were kept in better condition by wrapping in a napkin wrung out of cold water.
A variety of foods or combinations of foods were used for the interior portion of a sandwich, although salted meats stood first in popular favor. Meat was sliced very thinly across the grain, so that two or three slices could be used. Meat for sandwiches was seasoned -- Worcestershire sauce and the like harmonized with roast beef, tomato catsup with lamb, celery salt with chicken, and a little lemon juice with fish. Salad sandwiches had a mayonnaise dressing that took the place of butter; cress, lettuce, celery or cucumbers were combined with the meat.
A variety of cheese sandwiches were packed in the Victorian picnic basket. These included an ordinary welsh rarebit mixture, cheese grated and moistened with cream, in addition to chopped nuts and grated cheese. Fruit sandwiches were very desirable for the outdoor meal and often served as a second course, following the sandwiches made of meats. A popular version included bananas sliced thin and sprinkled with lemon juice with a speck of salt and a little sugar placed between slices of bread and butter. Preserved ginger chopped fine or sliced thin was another variety of sandwich filling, and in the same way jellies and marmalade were used. Unusual sandwiches popular at this time were ones filled with grated chocolate, or with thin slices of rich fruit, cake, or even with baked beans.
Some picnics had "made dishes" which were nearly as good when cold as when warm. Among these were croquettes, fish balls, Saratoga potatoes, and some meat pies. Cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits containing a large proportion of water were also acceptable on such occasions. Sardines and other canned foods were often carried to be opened at the picnic location. Crackers accompanied sardines, and they were better when carried in a tin box, because if placed near sandwiches or other moist food they lost their crispness.
Homemade desserts were especially suitable for picnics. Doughnuts with cheese were well adapted to out-of-door life, as well as juicy pies, turnovers, and cakes with cream filling. In very hot weather it was necessary to give as much attention to the preparation of drink as of food for the picnics. Where water was abundant at the picnic location, lemons and sugar were brought for lemonade. Some stowed away a coffee pot and coffee, and built a camp fire to serve a hot drink. Tea or coffee was also made at home of double or quadruple strength, and then diluted as served.
In her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton recommended the following for a picnic of twenty persons:
5 lbs. of Cold Salmon
1 Quarter of Lamb
1 Large Galantine of Veal
3 Boiled Chickens
2 Pigeon Pies
Salad with Dressing
2 Fruit Tarts
2 Jellies. 2 Creams
1 Gallon of Strawberries
3 lbs. of Grapes
1 lb of Cheese
½ lb. of Butter
4 Loaves of Bread, or Rolls