Stories from the Big House

29 April 2015

Mrs. Beeton and the Perfect Picnic

By Tricia Kelly
Anyone who has ever had any interest in Victorian history has, at the very least, heard of Mrs. Beeton and her now-famous book Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  It started as a monthly supplement to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.  In 1861 those supplements were bound into one large volume.  It contained advice on childcare, health and hygiene, and even how to hire domestic staff.  The book also included a large number of recipes, which is why the same book is often referred to as a cookbook.  For the first time, measures of ingredients and cooking tools needed to execute a meal were listed, right along with cooking times and temperatures.
Perhaps most surprising to me was how many pages were dedicated to that warm weather pastime—the picnic.  Picnics were enormously popular in the 19th century.  Many families could not afford to take long vacations, and even wealthy families sometimes simply could not spare the time away from home.  Yet one day away from the cares of the usual grind was possible for just about anyone.  

While there are some similarities to the picnics we have today, there are also some major differences.  Mrs. Beeton knew the loveliest place for such an outing was…the cemetery.  Today, we’d think her morbid.  Who wants to eat around a bunch of dead people, right?  Certainly that’s one way to look at it.  Another way would be to admit that cemeteries—at least Victorian ones—were very well kept.  Cemeteries often had softly rolling hills with lovely trees and shrubs artfully planted.  They were usually on the outskirts of town, necessitating some travel; what a wonderful way to pass the time, enjoying the scenery of the drive unencumbered by bank buildings, gas stations, or fast-food joints.
Mrs. Beeton understood the concept well, and labored to bring the wisdom to her readers.  Picnics brought family and friends together.  The standard picnic, it seems, was a pack setup for about 20 people.  Some of Mrs. Beeton’s customary packables for one picnic included, but were not limited to:
Five pounds of cold salmon
One quarter of lamb
Three boiled chickens
Two pigeon pies
One large ham
Mint sauce
Two jellies
Two creams
One pound of cheese
Salad with dressing
Two cucumbers
One gallon strawberries
Three pounds of grapes
Four large loaves of bread
Pastry sandwiches
Was she trying to feed these people, or kill them?!  It should at least be mentioned that Mrs. Beeton did feel it necessary to stipulate that all parties involved bring one or two items among the list, thus sharing the responsibility—and cost.
Mrs. Isabella Beeton
The success of the picnic, Mrs. Beeton stressed, had as much to do with the methods of transport as the food itself.  A square basket, she advised, was better than a round one.  Each comestible could be packed in its own paraffin or paper wrapper.  Ideally, though, tin cocoa and cracker boxes were used (which may partly explain why so many of them are found in Victorian homes) so that the food would not dry out as quickly.  Despite today’s romantic notions, fancy dinner services were deeply frowned upon; wooden or paper plates were recommended, and wine glasses would not be packed, as alcohol of any kind at a picnic was viewed as uncivilized.  The one thing Mrs. Beeton did insist upon was a good, sharp, serrated bread knife.  Sandwiches, after all, were not to be wimpy, frilly, or dainty.  They had to be hearty, meaty things able to withstand the energy needs of children as well as adults.  After all, it was an entire day spent out-of-doors.  Mrs. Beeton suggested that if the picnic area chosen was near a water source (occasionally there would be a creek nearby) lemons, sugar, and a large jug would make do for a refreshing lemonade that everyone could share.  On rare occasions a quadruple strength tea was made and then diluted.
Mrs. Beeton was personally involved in the creation of many picnics, as she was the oldest of 20 siblings and step-siblings.  She used her experiences to write her now-famous book on running a household.  My impression of Mrs. Beeton has always been that of a kindly old woman in a mop-cap and apron spilling out advice to young ladies newly married.  Isabella Beeton, the mother of motherly advice, died in 1865……..
……at the age of 28.


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