Spotlight on Summer: Picnic Menus, Part 1

by Jennifer Scerra

“There are as many kinds of picnics as there are people to go on them, places to go, and means of getting there.”  -Good Housekeeping, August, 1927, page 112.

Helen Powell Schauffler wrote the above quote in an article on picnicking for Good Housekeeping magazine. It is true that there are many ways of having a successful picnic. But I would suggest that she forgot another, extremely important, variable of picnicking—the food that is eaten.

Picnicking in Southern California has been popular for generations. During that time, the means of traveling to a picnic have included biking, hiking, driving a car, driving a wagon, on horseback, on foot, taking a motorcycle, taking a bus, and on and on. But the choice of what food to bring has varied even more. The foods that we eat, like the ways that we travel, reflect our personal preferences. But they are also dictated by the technology, nature, and culture that surround us.

Ox Carts and Airplanes, LOS ANGELES, JAN. 1910. From the Homestead Museum collection.

Some of the older written descriptions that we have of Californians picnicking come from the Rancho period. The Rancho period is often used to describe the time during the 1830s and 1840s, after the California Missions had been shut down and before the region became a part of the United States.

In a travel journal he began in 1828, Alfred Robinson, from Boston, Massachusetts, described his time living in the Mexican territory of Alta California. In his final chapter, Robinson wrote about attending a picnic or “merienda” with friends in Santa Barbara around 1842, just before he made his way south to see the San Gabriel valley for the first time. Robinson described how his group traveled to their picnicking spot with 15 or 20 people on horseback and four ox carts leading the way. Three of the carts carried passengers. The fourth, he said, “squeaked under the immense weight of roast turkies [sic], chickens, beef, mutton, tamales, dulces, etc.”

2 Merrienda, Going to the Picnic
“Going to the Marrienda”, a drawing of couples on horseback, from Walter Colton’s “Two Years in California”, 1850-1859. Image from the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California Libraries.


The group made their way to “one of the most lovely places that could have been chosen for the occasion,” Robinson said, a hillside, shaded with oak trees, near a pond called La Laguna Blanca. After that,

“A large white table-cloth was spread on the grass, upon which were tastefully arranged our different dishes of meats, pastry, fruits, and sweetmeats; and around these we accommodated ourselves, some reclining, others seated upon the ground.”

Robinson went on to write about some of the other activities (guitar playing, horse racing) that accompanied the event. But by identifying the foods served during the meal, he let us know that they were a highlight of the occasion. The foods that he named, mostly meats and sweets, are high value, calorie dense, foods. To say it another way, foods that people are excited to eat.

But what more can this menu tell us? Though he does not specify which fruits exactly were brought along, Southern California has a favorable climate for growing many varieties. Sugar, on the other hand, was not grown in California. To sweeten the pastries and dulces, the Californios would have used sugar that was traded with ships traveling from far-off parts of Central and South America. And the meat animals, though raised on the local ranches, were also a result of world-wide global trading. The chickens (domesticated in East Asia) and the cows and sheep (domesticated in the Middle East) had made their way around the globe over the centuries to appear at that California picnic. Even the turkeys, which are native to Mexico and many parts of the United States, are not indigenous to California and would have been introduced there by travelers and settlers.

Robinson ended the story by reporting that everyone was “well satisfied with the day’s amusement.” But how does this picnic and its menu compare with those that came afterwards? California changed rapidly over the next 100 years and our next blog post in this series will explore how picnicking changed with it.

Here at the Homestead Museum blog, we’re talking about picnics and other summer fun in conjunction with our new First Sunday Picnics. Keep an eye out for future posts, and check out our previous posts on vacuum bottles and games.

Remaining First Sunday Picnics will be held on August 7 and September 4, 2016 from noon to 4:00 p.m. Bring a picnic and enjoy the beautiful grounds of the Homestead just like the Workman and Temple families did when they lived on the site between the 1840s and 1920s. Special surprises await picnickers each month!

No reservations are required, however, only traditional picnic setups are permitted (please no umbrellas, pop-ups, grills, radios, or access to electricity). Sorry, no alcohol or pets. Admission is free.

Leave a Reply