by Jennifer Scerra
Imagine you are planning a picnic for this weekend. What food would you bring?
What if you were planning a picnic 50, 100 or 200 years ago? What options would you have had then?
The foods that we eat can reflect our individual preferences and choices, but they are also controlled by the technology, nature, and culture that surround us. Last month we looked at a picnic menu from the California Rancho period in the early 1800s to see what foods were available and chosen for picnics by the Californios. This month we will move forward in time and explore how picnicking and picnic foods changed along with California in the years that followed.
In 1842, a man from Boston, MA recorded his experience going on a picnic or merienda in Santa Barbara. Within 10 years of that picnic, California was already a wildly different place. After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848 the territory became a part of the United States, and immigrants flooded in from all over the world to hunt for gold in its mines during the gold rush. In the 50 years that followed, California’s population would multiply to 16 times its 1850 size; agriculture, with many newly cultivated plants, would become a backbone of the economy; and a diversity of cultures, including British Victorian culture would influence manners, dress and many other parts of life.
At the tails end of the Victorian Era, in 1905, the Los Angeles Times newspaper held a recipe contest for “California Women.” The results were published in The Los Angeles Times Cook Book No. 2. The book contained chapters for Spanish dishes, puddings, salads, cooking fish and fowl, breads and rolls and one section on “Menus for picnic lunches.”
Nine women contributed menus suited to a range of different picnicking situations. There was a menu entitled “Plain lunch universally liked,” which consisted of ham sandwiches, baked beans, sweet or sour pickles, and “a bottle of cold coffee, seasoned with milk and sugar.” There was a “Picnic Luncheon for Jolly 6” featuring fried chicken, strawberry rolls, sardine salad, and picnic pudding. Another menu, called “Picnic lunch adapted to a Family of Six” suggested packing 18 cheese and egg sandwiches, a corn-beef salad, ginger snaps, and lemonade.
Taking a closer look, these menus can help us think about what was happening in California at the beginning of the twentieth century. There was a great deal of citrus called for (including oranges in orange marmalade, lemons in lemon pie, and grapefruit in a pomelo beverage), which reflected California’s booming citrus industry. Other menu items included examples of foods reflecting California’s growing and diverse population, including Tamale Croquettes (small fried corn and egg balls) and Crullers (a German twisted doughnut). Another place where the menus are interesting is where the foods that they suggest overlap. Sandwiches, potato salad, and deviled eggs each appeared multiple times in the chapter. Also repeated were veal loaf and cream puffs filled with flour-thickened milk.
The menu writers also offered the readers advice, giving insights into the challenges and changes that picnickers in 1905 faced. Mrs. M. Dickerson from Ontario, California, suggested that:
“the best bread for sandwiches is what is known as the ‘Pullman loaf.’ It is browned on all sides and will cut to so much better advantage than the ordinary loaf.”
The Pullman loaf she describes was a type of bread recently made popular by the Pullman Company, a railroad car manufacturer. The squared shape of the Pullman loaf made it stackable for efficient storage in small train car kitchens. The bread also had a thin crust and could be easily sliced. A modern American food eater would probably recognize the Pullman loaf today as “sandwich bread.”
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.