A few weeks ago, some of my students wanted to have a party, so I proposed a picnic in a park close to the high school. My proposal was simple: bring your lunch, and I’ll bring dessert. I imagined our picnic would be similar to the many I had during college—sandwiches or something easily stored in Tupperware®, perhaps some carrot sticks or an apple. In other words, straightforward, nothing fancy. I had forgotten that the typical French student never packs a sack lunch and wrinkles her nose at the suggestion of peanut butter and jelly as if I had proposed slathering fish eyes between two slices of bread. I had also forgotten that lunch is the hearty meal of the French day and that no one but me bats an eye at the three-course meals our cafeteria serves up. So, when only one of my students brought a homemade lunch, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was.
Since then, I have been on a few real French picnics and have realized how very gracious my students were—they made no comment about my meager lunch of bread, half of an avocado, and carrots. They even seemed happy, munching on their street sandwiches. This is what they didn’t tell me: the art of picnicking à la française:
1. No sandwiches. Period. There are plenty of other delicious and portable main dishes, for example: savory pies. You can bake these pies the night before and keep them in their (very quaint) pie dish, and then they are all ready to be served.
2. Don’t forget the plates (preferably melamine, not paper) or the flatware. You should also bring glass glasses for the wine—plastic cups are practically a travesty. And, if you want to have a proper picnic, don’t forget the tablecloth.
3. You can find a way to transport many, seemingly messy courses. Salad is the obvious example. If you bring a platter, the salad can be easily garnished with alternating slices of tomatoes and hardboiled eggs. Add a snail of mayonnaise on top of the egg yolks and you’re good to go.
4. It’s okay to bring several coolers. You’ll need them for the drinks, including the wine, as well as the cheese. Even though it’s a picnic, your cheese platter should offer a generous selection, preferably cheeses made from different kinds of milk, like sheep or goat.
5. A picnic, or any meal, really, would be incomplete without a dessert. Again, a pie is easily transported as well, but you can also bring a cake (keep it in the pan) or some fruit.
6. Finally, bring a thermos of coffee to top everything off.
7. Oh! And the bread! You absolutely cannot forget the bread! If you do, you have every right to panic. (Mind you, this is good boulangerie bread. If you only have sandwich bread, you should still panic.)
The French are masters of the details, and their picnics are no exception. Everything is thought of and looked after. Sometimes we lack in simplicity, my pastor’s wife confessed, while I marveled over the spread my congregation had fit out under a cloud-less, country-blue sky. Part of me couldn’t help but agree with her: my American efficiency streaks my delight with incredulity. I can hardly believe that people regularly go to this much trouble to eat outside. There’s so much to prepare, so much to carry, and so much to clean up. All that time could be used differently, for a game of Frisbee or something.
But these picnics aren’t just exhibitions of culinary perfectionism. Here’s the Mary to the French Martha: from beginning to end, these courses, the apératif, the starters, the main dish, the cheese, the dessert, and the coffee, all take a very long time. We go slowly, we admire the river or the fields or the castle, and, with every bite, every sip, we savor each other’s company. When we finish a course, we don’t move on to the next one right away. Instead of inhaling the feast, we pause. We finish the conversation, which is more important than the food anyway, which, of course, is very important. Good food—the perfect blend of spices, the proper sauce, the well-aged wine—is crucial, but it does more than pique our taste buds. It gives a structure to our time together when we sit, and talk, and listen.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.