The Urban Picnic by John Burns and Elisabeth Caton

by Andrea Belcham

2 June 2004


Bringing the Picnic to the City

Bear in mind that you should conduct yourself in life as at a feast.
— Epictetus

These days, the moments we snatch for “relaxation” are often a far cry from actual sensory release: Think of megasized movie theatres, bombarding pleasure-seekers with garishly packaged, additive-laden snack foods, and offering distractions in the form of high decibel, action-packed feature films (and pre-show ads); alternatively, picture a family’s quiet night in—mother skimming through a file from work in front of the television, one child thumbing a magazine as he chats on his cellphone, another one’s eyes fused to her computer screen as her stereo blasts music that carries throughout the house. Why, at these times so carefully set aside for leisure, are we still multitasking?

cover art

The Urban Picnic

John Burns and Elisabeth Caton

(Arsenal Pulp Press)

The Urban Picnic, by John Burns and Elisabeth Caton, recognizes the problem of the fast-living urbanite’s dissatisfied soul, and presents, in essay and recipe, a picnic philosophy as remedy. For many, the picnic occupies a nostalgic place in their lives, a cherished symbol of childhood freedom and rural paradise, but a luxury. For Burns and Caton, however, the picnic is an everyday possibility, a refuge from the demands of the working world that can be accessed in the city as well as the countryside. Forget yoga and tai chi: All you need to heal your mind is an alfresco meal. Here, the picnic is presented as a near-meditative process, involving the careful preparation and assembly of various dishes, and the slow enjoyment of flavours and textures. Burns and Caton stress, above all, savouring the moment—not just the food, but also a point in time unencumbered by schedules or obligations.

Caton serves up the recipes, with occasional contributions from guest chefs such as Nigella Lawson and Surreal Gourmet Bob Blumer. True to the book’s basic proposal that homemade picnics can be created by urbanites of all skill levels (and all work schedules), her recipes range from simple to those requiring a little more dedication; regardless of complexity, though, instructions are clearly laid out and all dishes make use of generally inexpensive and readily available fresh ingredients. As is the trend with many contemporary cookbooks, a number of vegetarian options are presented—which is not to say that dedicated carnivores will not find anything within the pages of The Urban Picnic to whet their appetites: Old-Fashioned Cornish Pasties, Bacon and Egg Pie and Oxford Kates Sausages are but three nods to picnic outings of old. While classic dishes are included for retro appeal—think Waldorf Salad and Jellied Salmon—other recipes cater to the postmodern palate by updating tradition with global flavours, such as Sesame Potatoes seasoned with spicy black bean and hoisin sauces, and Coleslaw with Curried Peanut Dressing. All dishes were clearly constructed by Caton with portability in mind: A menu of Edamame Bean Salad, Millet Pie and Sherry Balls is easily stowed in a backpack for an afternoon hike around the city.

Burns, for his part, contributes the engrossing examination of the picnic’s historical development—its links to class and its transformations come industrialization and the advent of “modern technology”—that opens the book. Particularly amusing are the warnings issued by 19th-century community leaders who dismissed picnics as devilish diversions from social responsibilities: “There are very few young girls,” reads one article from 1883, “who are not injured by attending these picnics, and after visiting them they become so low that they are sent to prison and jails as habitual drunkards and disorderly characters.” Anecdotes, such as the tale of the citizens who, one fine summer day in 1861, gathered with packed lunches and opera glasses to watch the First Battle of Bull Run, add an entertaining touch to this section of the book, as does a compilation of picnic games of old (that popular standby, the peanut race, is there, as are such more curiously titled competitions as A Trip to Toonerville and Riding the Cow).

The supplementary picnic lore—which also includes theme menu suggestions replete with music recommendations, and reproductions of vintage food product ads—and the recipes are, without a doubt, of high quality. Yet for a book aiming to be a handbook, or at least an inspiration, for the urban picnicker, little attention is given to location. Geographic features, transportation, work schedules and other factors unique to urbanites contribute to their picnic site choices; while Burns does acknowledge the backyard, rooftop and neighbourhood parks as possibilities, and vaguely encourages exploration elsewhere, one might have expected as much commitment to present picnic conditions as that which he devotes to the past. What of the plethora of other settings available to the city’s adventurous: the port, the abandoned lot, the empty stadium stands, the cemetery, even the foot of a statue in a downtown square? The options are many, and far beyond the well-trodden corner park. In order for one to experience the picnic as escape, as the authors hope will happen, a location that fosters a change in state of mind is requisite, and certainly worth more written investigation.

Often gurus praising the simple life run the risk of overgeneralization. It is easy enough to advise others to take a break from servitude and begin to serve the self; it is another thing entirely to be the single parent working overtime at a minimum-wage job to support your two children. But The Urban Picnic does not fall victim to this foible; though it does reference the Slow Food movement, it does not preach: in his introduction, Burns suggests making small changes that, when added up among participants, may bring about larger transformations. Rein in that high-speed lifestyle you’ve been leading, he advises. If you are able, consider bigger shifts such as telecommuting; or contribute to the revolution in more minute ways, by making “a single meal rethought”—a homemade sandwich instead of a 99-cent sleeve of fries—or by claiming a tiny “moment of leisure, even if it’s only for the time it takes to eat a meal under that tree that grows in Brooklyn.”

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