Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino's top summer picnic spots around Waterloo region

The summer picnic has a revolutionary history, but its modern practice can show off charming locations in and around the region, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

Picnics are more than just wicker baskets, bread and cheese on red-checkered tablecloths, ants and the threat of sudden rain-showers.

We are drawn to eating outdoors in pleasant summer weather perhaps much like we are drawn to visit the ocean. A picnic lunch, including cartoons of Yogi Bear, the purple bow-tied Boo-Boo Bear and Ranger Smith, is underpinned by strong historical and social contexts. 

Word myth

Did ants, mosquitoes or sparrows play a role in the wordplay? While the provenance of the English word is uncertain, one theory is that some time in the mid-1700s "picnic" evolved out of the French verb, "piquer" (to peck or sting, later slang usage includes to steal -- as in "pique-pocket" -- or to even put down an animal). That's a century after "pique-nique" first appeared in French writings. 

The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest usage of "pic-nic" by Lord Chesterfield in 1748, and later in 1777 by E.C. Knight in an autobiography: "...and on the previous day went to a 'pique-nique' at a little country house not far from the town [Toulon, France]."

Another theory suggests that pique-nique derives from the phrase "pique un niche," referring to a secluded, hidden spot.

Regardless of their accuracy, we can see both of those qualities – picking your favourite picnic food and finding a suitable, isolated spot – in the way we picnic today.

A French dining revolution

The French Revolution determined some important characteristics of picnics. Previously-locked royal grounds and parks were opened up to common citizens who began to eat there, but the practice was divided across class lines.

While we tend to imagine the meal as a single family occasion – or an even more intimate and private moment when we look lovingly into the eyes of a companion over our Brie and baguette – picnics in the years following the Revolution were communal events, decreed by neighbourhood committees and intended to build community and create civic camaraderie. They were patriotic banquets and exercises in fraternity and unity.

That is evident today in the celebrations that highlight the Canadian and American national birthdays of July 1 and July 4 or, in the public "long table" dinners that have become popular in recent years. We've seen more of these recently in Kitchener and Stratford. (In France, the Millennium was celebrated with a 1,000-km long-table picnic on Bastille Day, 2000.)

Frugal foods eaten with hands 

The picnics of the post-Revolution were collaborative: meat brought by one person was complemented by another's vegetables. Food was intended to be shared and eaten with one's hands (as we most often do in our picnics today), and it was supposed to be simple fare: there was a movement that encouraged foods that were made frugally and without preparation or the intervention of a "cook." That meant bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables – items we often associate with picnics today.

In the several years after the Revolution, there may have been little silverware around: it had been melted down as an ostentatious symbol of aristocrats, and people were encouraged to eat with their hands like "children of nature," a principle of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Ready to picnic? Location tips 

You'll be smarter than the average bear when you select one of these picnic and food pairings in Waterloo Region and Wellington and Perth counties for a quiet, solitary and contemplative lunch, or a more intimate picnic with a special companion.

Cambridge

The Hespeler neighbourhood of Cambridge is experiencing a renaissance of late. Call ahead and order a picnic box of local cheeses and charcuterie, olives, pickles and nuts from O & V Tasting Roomor a steak sandwich with chimichurri sauce by Ernie's Roadhouse (both on Queen Street).

Then head to Jacob's Landing at Milling Road and Guelph Avenue for benches, access to the river and views of the dam, and a garden and pergola.

Guelph

The Royal City has a growing and vibrant food scene in its compact and walkable downtown core. Check out Earth to Table Bread Bar for a Cubano with lime aioli or The Boathouse Tea Room (both on Gordon Street) for a BLT with avocado on a hearty whole-grain bread.

Take the walking bridge to Royal City Park for picnic spots along the river bank and a stroll along the Royal Recreation Trail.

John Galt felled a tree in the vicinity of John Galt Park when he founded the town of Guelph in 1827. The park in his name can be the setting for noshing on that pork belly Reuben with Russian dressing and sauerkraut from The Wooly Pub on Woolwich Street.

Kitchener

Just behind City Hall, at the corner of Duke and Young streets and up a few stairs, are several hundred square feet of green space with trees, benches, French garden chairs and tables, an artistically rendered anvil and historic architectural pieces celebrating Kitchener's past industrial past.

Grab a Montreal smoked meat from Quick Sandwiches or a grilled salmon wrap with caramelized onions from 271West on King Street and enjoy.

A few blocks away is Hibner Park, a small triangular parkette with a pergola, fountain and small playground in the Civic Centre in and around Ahrens Street and Maynard Avenue. Built in 1894, the park's fountain was funded by former Kitchener mayor and captain of industry Daniel Hibner. Bring with you a world famous five-meat, oven-toasted Munchie sub from Pepi's Pizza on Water Street North at Weber Street. 

Stratford

While the Stratford Festival can mean busy parks, there are a number of suitable spots along the banks of the Avon River between Waterloo Street and the Festival theatre. Or, trek over to Tom Patterson Island.

Visit Linley's: A Food Shop on York Street for a selection of four picnic boxes for two including the Classic with baguette sandwiches or the Riverside with chilled chicken legs and a stone-fruit salad.

At the Red Rabbit on Wellington Street, order a soy and mushroom veggie burger with mushroom ketchup; or, better yet, some fried chicken with a secret blend of herbs and spices. Chef Sean Collins says of the chicken, "It travels surprisingly well."


More food columns from Andrew Coppolino

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.

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