Planning Your Memorial Day Picnic

Picnic near Yanceyville, N.C., Photo: Library of Congress

For my interview with Chad Bouchard on the history and recipes of early Memorial Day picnics, visit Earth Eats at Indiana Public Media.

Memorial Day is one of the earliest days in the year where the vast majority of the continental United States is warm enough to have a picnic.

The history of Memorial Day is a bit obscure. For millennia, many cultures have at least one time of year set aside to honor their fallen soldiers. In the wake of the Civil War, this custom took on new importance in the United States with Decoration Day.

Lakeside picnic, near mouth of Socateau, Photo: Library of CongressDecoration Day brought the entire community out to cemeteries to clear away the debris from winter and to decorate gravesites with flowers and ribbons. In both the North and South, Decoration Day included speeches meant to stir patriotism and nostalgia. Local school bands would perform music, and there would be poetry recitations. And with the entire community gathered together, festivities would often conclude with pot luck picnics.

By the turn of the 20th century, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, Decoration Day had morphed into Memorial Day – a time to remember the fallen dead from all wars. Families increasingly went on picnics alone, and the large community events were mainly only celebrated in rural towns.

But what did a turn-of-the-century spring picnic look like? Remember, not a lot of produce could be harvested this early in the season, so spring picnics depended heavily on roasted meats, biscuits and breads, and pickles and preserves. This would be the time of year you head down into your root cellar or pantry, see what canned provisions you have on your shelves, and start making room for the coming season’s bounty.

Picnics were immensely popular by the turn of the century. The progressive-era in America emphasized fresh air as part of a healthy lifestyle. First-hand reports early in the Civil War often noted that families would come to battlefields from nearby towns, pick a hill with a good view, and feast on a picnic while soldiers fired at one another below.

Indeed, picnics were so popular that the vast majority of cookbooks at the time had entire sections devoted to instructions on how to put together the perfect picnic basket, suggestions on what foods to bring, and a variety of recipes to choose from.

Picnic in Sycamore Grove, Los Angeles, CA in 1910, Photo: Library of Congress

One of my favorites is from Buckeye Cookery by Estelle Woods Wilcox. Here are her recommendations for the perfect picnic, published in 1877.


In the “Sunny South,” picnics are in order as early as April, but in the more northern latitudes should never be attempted before the latter part of May, or June, and September and October are the crowning months for them around the northern lakes, where hunting and fishing give zest to the sports. First, be up “at five o’clock in the morning,” in order to have the chicken, biscuit, etc., freshly baked. Provide two baskets, one for the provisions, and the other for dishes and utensils, which should include the following: Table-cloth and an oil-cloth to put under it, napkins, towels, plates, cups, forks, a few knives and table-spoons, tea-spoons, sauce dishes, tin cups (or tumblers, if the picnickers are of the over-fastidious variety); a tin bucket, for water, in which a bottle of cream, lemons, oranges, or other fruit, may be carried to the scene of action; another with an extra-close cover, partly filled with made chocolate, which may be readily reheated by setting in an old tin pail or pan in which water is kept boiling a la custard-kettle; a frying-pan; a coffee-pot, with the amount of prepared coffee needed tied in a coarse, white flannel bag; a tea-pot, with tea in a neat paper package; tin boxes of salt, pepper, and sugar; a tin box for butter (if carried) placed next to block of ice, which should be well wrapped with a blanket and put in a shady corner of the picnic wagon. For extra occasions, add a freezer filled with frozen cream, with ice well packed around it, and heavily wrapped with carpeting. To pack the basket, first put in plates, cups, and sauce dishes carefully with the towels and napkins, and paper if needed; then add the rest, fitting them in tightly, and covering all with the table-cloth, and over it the oil-cloth. Tie the coffee and tea-pots, well wrapped up, and the frying-pan to the handles. Pack provision basket as full as the law allows, or as the nature of the occasion and the elasticity of the appetites demand. One piece of good advice to picnickers is to try to get under the wing of some good farm-house, where coffee may be boiled, and nice rich cream, green corn, good water, etc., may be readily foraged; and for a Fourth of July picnic, nothing will taste better than a dish of new potatoes, nicely prepared at the farm-house. But if not so fortunate, a good fire may be built, where all things may be merrily prepared. In fact, in the spring and fall, the fire is a necessity for roasting or broiling game, ham, clams, fish, corn and potatoes, etc.

A delicious way to roast potatoes, birds, or poultry, or even fish, is to encase them in a paste made of flour and water, and bake in the embers of a camp-fire; or build a fire over a flat stone, and when burnt down to coals, clear the stone, lay on the potatoes, birds, etc., wrapped in wet, heavy brown paper, cover with dry earth, sand, or ashes, and place the hot coals over these, adding more fuel. The Gypsies and Indians roast their poultry in mud molds or cases, covering feathers and all.

The following bills of fare may be picked to pieces and recombined to suit tastes and occasions:

SPRING PICNICS.–Cold roast chicken; ham broiled on coals; fish fried or broiled; sardines; tongue; hard-boiled eggs; eggs to be fried or scrambled; Boston corn bread; buttered rolls; ham sandwiches prepared with grated ham; orange marmalade; canned peaches; watermelon and beet sweet-pickles; euchered plums; variety or bottled pickles; chow-chow; quince or plum jelly; raspberry or other jams; Scotch fruit, rolled jelly, chocolate, Minnehaha, old-fashioned loaf, and marble cake; coffee, chocolate, tea; cream and sugar; salt and pepper; oranges.

SUMMER PICNICS.–Cold baked or broiled chicken; cold boiled ham; pickled salmon; cold veal loaf; Parker House rolls; light bread; box of butter; green corn boiled or roasted; new potatoes; sliced tomatoes; sliced cucumbers; French and Spanish pickles; peach and pear sweet-pickles; lemon or orange jelly; strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries; lemonade; soda-beer or raspberry vinegar; coffee and tea; ice-cream; lemon or strawberry-ice; sponge, white, Buckeye, or lemon cake; watermelon, muskmelon, nutmeg-melon.

FALL PICNICS.–Broiled prairie chicken; fish chowder; clam chowder; clams roasted or fried; beef omelet; cold veal roast; sardines; cold roast chicken; pot of pork and beans; rusk, Minnesota rolls, Boston brown bread; potatoes, Irish or sweet, roasted in ashes; egg sandwiches (hard-boiled eggs, sliced, sprinkled with pepper and salt, and put between buttered bread); mangoes; piccalilli; Chili sauce; quince marmalade; baked apples; musk and nutmeg-melon; crab apple jelly; grape jelly; black, orange, velvet, sponge, and three-ply cake; combination pie.