Picnics and Poison

The (un)healthy benefits of Victorian outdoor dining

Inga Bryden


This paper will investigate the interactions between food, health and culture through a focus on the cultural history of the picnic.

The picnic’s contemporary associations are with pleasurable, informal eating, packed food, and attractive rural landscapes. In a European context, picnics evolved from medieval hunting feasts to elaborate social occasions where each participant contributed to the shared meal. A shift from an emphasis on shared food contributions to picnic meaning ‘eating out of doors’ took place during the nineteenth century.

‘Picking’ or ‘pecking’ at a variety of foods suggests a carefree experience, whilst an excursion to a particular spot in the countryside, followed by al fresco dining, brings health, physical exercise and consuming food together. By the mid-Victorian period, transporting and eating food in an outdoor location was part of wider cultural attitudes towards healthy living. Although picnics afforded the opportunity to assert one’s social status, they also represented a relaxation of social formalities. Cultivating the `art of the picnic’ became synonymous with a particular approach to life. It is striking how, in nineteenth-century visual representations of picnicking, the focus is on bodies (rather than on the food or beverages) artfully, yet informally, positioned in bucolic settings.

Picnics also symbolised cultural `mixing’ – a variety of types of food and cultural practices which could be partaken of without adherence to rigid course menus or circumscribed by dining etiquette.   In this sense, particular types – and temperatures – of food and drink were seen as soothing to the soul (spiritually healthy), complementing the health benefits of outdoor eating.

Contextualising the picnic as above, the paper will then focus on the – perhaps less culturally dominant – notion of the `unhealthy’ picnic; or, the picnic as impending disaster. With reference to a range of nineteenth-century written, literary and visual texts, I will discuss the ways in which the picnic presented challenges to wellbeing.  Additional attention had to be paid to food combinations, preparation, packing, transportation and temperature in order to limit the likelihood of food poisoning. Further threats to health came from weather conditions; insects and wildlife; the potential for accidents in ‘untamed’ locations; the discomfort of clothing and environment, and possible unexpected guests.

Whilst picnicking – and picnic food – was wrapped in romantic nostalgia, it also offered the possibility for flirtation and represented a kind of unhealthy recklessness. In contemporary culture the picnic persists as cultural memory in the context of debates about healthy eating and lifestyles.