The Secret History Behind the Most Iconic American Picnic Traditions, Revealed

The classic American picnic has a much richer history than you'd think.

Black and white picture of a wooden picnic table covered with plates of food including slices of fruit, salads and bottles of wine. Four humans clink their glasses together

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The picnic is as American as apple pie, a tradition we love and share with many cultures worldwide-dining alfresco is hardly our own invention. The word “picnic” started showing up mid-18th century, drawing its origins from the French pique-nique-a social gathering where people would bring their own food and wine. (Though, back then they probably didn’t have options as delicious as these.) In fact, many of our country’s most-loved picnic traditions have long-forgotten pasts. Read on to learn the secret history hidden inside your picnic basket.

1. The Fourth of July Picnic

It’s often one of the highlights of the summer, the annual Fourth of July picnic when we gather friends and family round to kick back, watch the fireworks, and devour plenty of fantastic food. From coast-to-coast, your typical Independence Day cookout involves burgers, hoagies, and plenty of beer. But back in the 18th century, you’d find turtle soup and poached salmon with egg sauce, and pigeon on the table. Our tastes have certainly evolved over the past 200 years!

2. Staple Dish: The Hot Dog

With German roots, the frankfurter made it to American shores sometime in the 19th century when we rechristened it the hot dog and quickly adopted it as our own. Delicious and easy to eat, it quickly became a fixture at baseball games, street side food carts, and eventually picnics. And when FDR hosted a picnic at his country home, the president served the U.K.’s King George VI his first hot dog ever.

There are a few ways to prepare hot dogs, but this is our favorite.

3. The Southern Picnic

Feast might be a more appropriate word when it comes to the southern take on outdoor eating. Down in the South, come summer it’s time to break out the grill. Barbecuing is an antebellum tradition that grew out of the booming southern pork industry in the days before the Civil War. As time went on, it became the thing to do for every church party, political rally, or social gathering. Fried chicken, ribs, buttermilk biscuits, sweet potato pie and corn bread…the list goes on. Because southern cooking is just so mouth-wateringly good, many staples have been adopted at picnics tables around the U.S.

Have you made any of these classic southern recipes?

4. Staple Dish: Deviled Eggs

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been to a picnic that didn’t have deviled eggs. Believe it or not, the history of this dish dates back to ancient Rome. Back then, deviled eggs were served to the wealthy as the first course of the meal. The course became so popular that the Romans coined a saying, “ab ova usque ad mala:” from eggs to apples (or from beginning to end of the meal). We’re still munching on these timeless favorites, with a few improvements like smoked salmon, bacon–and jalapenos, of course.

5. Picnic Predecessor: The Potluck

One of the older picnic traditions that continues to this day, the potluck is the direct ancestor of the picnic with roots that go all the way back to medieval Europe. The potluck as we know it first came about during the Great Depression of the 1930s. With everyone pinching pennies where they could, it was an unbeatable way to share the cost of a meal while feeding many mouths. Each guest brings a dish to contribute to the spread–after all, we can’t have the hostess doing all the work! Many a picnic is part potluck. Some of our preferred provisions are casseroles, pies, and dips, plus the next dish on this list.

6. Staple Dish: Macaroni Salad

This cold pasta salad is an essential of Picnicking 101. Easy to transport and oh so delicious, it’s virtually impossible to have just one helping of this American classic. Compared with many of the other items featured here, macaroni salad is a more recent addition to the American culinary playbook. Versions of the macaroni or pasta salad began appearing in cookbooks around the turn of the 20th century. The modern day incarnation first cropped up around the 1960s and took off in a big way during the ’80s as part of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement. Don’t fancy pasta? Potato salad or coleslaw are good substitutes.

Find the best pasta salad recipes in the country, here.

7. An Ice Cold One

No picnic would be complete without something to wash down all that delectable food. Beer has been a picnic staple practically since day one. Enjoying a cold one in the sun may seem second-nature, but its origins can be traced back to early 19th century Bavaria, Germany, where brewers would place benches and tables on the grass outside their beer storage cellars. The trend took off to become the ever-popular beer garden, which can be found all over Europe and America today. If you’re not inclined towards crushing a few cans, there are plenty of ultra tasty nonalcoholic drink options you can prebatch and pop in your hamper.

Feeling inspired? We’ve got 30 Beer Garden Copycat Recipes, here.

8. Who Needs a Grill?

Not every picnic can be a southern-style cookout. Fortunately, there are plenty of cold dishes to whip up for your picnicking pleasure. We’ve talked about macaroni salads, but cold cuts, sandwiches, cold chicken, and more are go-to’s for many of us when the grill is left at home. These cold options are closer in spirit to the Victorian picnics of yore that featured cold meat pies, cheese sandwiches, and canned foods.

There’s a lot to still learn about picnics past, but there’s one thing we know for certain today: a picnic is a great way to spend a day relaxing with friends and family. As Walter Levy says in his excellent book The Picnic: A History, “it’s a cardinal belief with every man, woman, and child that a picnic includes pretty nearly the most perfect form of human enjoyment.” We couldn’t agree more.

Camille Berry
Part of the third generation in a family of restaurateurs, Camille was born with a passion for cooking and food. She embarked on a career in hospitality where she excelled as a sommelier and wine director. This hospitality experience has given her a wealth of first-hand knowledge about how to pair all manner of drinks with food—plus some serious kitchen skills. These days, she's hung up her wine key in favor of a pen and covers all aspects of food and drink.