Although the picnic concept developed from formal feasts and banquets for the European wealthy, the modern American family picnic is simply a meal held outdoors. As the American picnic evolved, foods that are easy to eat, can be enjoyed at any temperature, and are easily transported have become traditional picnic foods.
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The sandwich is a perfect picnic food, as it keeps well, is compact, easy to eat, and versatile. Peanut butter and jelly, cheese, tuna or chicken salad, roast beef, turkey, ham, and chicken are popular traditional choices and should be made on thick, substantial bread that can hold up to time and transport without becoming mushy or falling apart. Many traditional picnic menus call for bread and butter sandwiches, an item we don't see much of today.
Eggs show up at picnics in many forms: devilled, stuffed, hard-boiled, pickled, and in egg salad. Because eggs can be served in so many different ways, there is bound to be a style to please almost anyone, which makes it a food well-suited to a crowd. Many styles of egg, such as hard-boiled and pickled, are simple to prepare in large quantities and easy to eat.
Cold fried chicken is a classic picnic dish that shows up on picnic menus from as far back as 1912. Because fried chicken keeps well and is as delicious cold as it is hot, it is ideal for picnic situations. Chicken also appears on picnic menus in other forms; enjoy chicken salad, creamed chicken, or even chicken soup in a Thermos for picnics on colder days.
While potato salad seems like a classic American dish, it is actually European in origin and can be English, French, or German in style. Potato salad shows up on picnic menus from the early 20th century, but the modern American version dressed with mayonnaise didn't become popular in the 1940s. Before that, potatoes were dressed in oil and vinegar, vinaigrette, or French dressing. American potato salads vary regionally, but they are all popular picnic foods.
For something sweet at the end of the meal, nothing is simpler than fruit. With the endless varieties, ease of transport, and ease of eating, fruit may be the most perfect picnic food. It can be chopped and mixed up in a fruit salad, sliced and laid out on a plate, or simply left whole. If you find yourself wondering why fruit seems so appropriate in a picnic setting, keep in mind that fruit may very well have been the first food humans ate outdoors, making it the first picnic food in history.
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