Boiled eggs, sun and soggy sandwiches

2009-02-16 00:00

I recently read a lyrical piece in praise of picnics, which led me to reminisce about picnics that I have known but not necessarily loved. It was striking that most of the article was about picnics in the past tense as the author and others remembered events from their childhood. This left me wondering if people still go on picnics. We seldom take our children picnicking unless it’s an organised event such as a church or school outing.

A picnic from my childhood that I fondly remember was the annual Brownies outing. Hundreds of little girls in brown uniforms gathered to eat those standards of British picnics; hardboiled eggs with salt in a twist of sandwich paper and soggy white bread sandwiches. The packed lunch that I got from the hostel always included something that I have seldom encountered since: hedgehogs. For the uninitiated, a hedgehog is a hard-boiled egg covered in deep-fried sausage meat. Although I’d never served one to my children, seeing how “deep-fried” is now a culinary swear word, they were definitely the highlight of the event.

Because I was a boarder, I was sometimes taken out for a day or a weekend by family friends. These excursions often included a picnic in the country. Picnicking with one set of friends was memorable not for the food that was served but for the car troubles that we always encountered. They owned an ageing Austin station wagon that must have been strongly averse to picnics as it had the knack of getting stuck in soft sand, developing a puncture or simply breaking down. I recall the father of the family sweating and swearing, his bald head stuck under the car where it got spiked by devil thorns. I remember thinking rather unsympathetically that only a “townie” would climb under a car without checking the ground first.

Picnics with my own family were seldom about sitting sedately on folding chairs or rugs to eat special food, chat or read the Sunday papers. Family outings were usually about scrambling up a kopje or going for a walk that rivalled a route march with the French Foreign Legion. The food and drinks were fairly incidental, just juice and home-made ginger biscuits or rock cakes carried by my father in an old canvas rucksack. Even the family dogs were conscripted into these outings, yelping excitedly on the back of the bakkie and hanging their tongues on the wind. Believe me when I say that if they have to, dogs can get up a sheer granite rock face as well as any two-legged being and sometimes better. We usually sustained bruises, scratches or thorns in our feet and had to endure a full body search for ticks in the bath that night. Despite this, when my three siblings and I reminisce, those are some of the times we remember most warmly.

In some places on the Midlands Meander picnics have morphed into something far classier than the sagging sandwiches of my childhood. You can order a basket of food and accompanying drinks to be enjoyed in a suitably pastoral setting and even have a picnic wedding reception. The midlands region is also known for its fishing, which is a popular pastime in the Indian community and often the reason behind picnics at Midmar or Albert Falls dams. An Indian colleague said: “While the fishermen do their thing, the family has a picnic. Outings to the beach are also popular, particularly during the festive season. The women of the family will cook a huge pot of food such as breyani and the whole family will spend the day at the beach. Many of the men fish there too.” However, he felt that the popularity of picnics has declined because of safety concerns.

A Basotho colleague said that picnics are not part of her cultural tradition, while a Zulu reporter said that vleis braais are popular, but picnics do not really feature.

Another white colleague said that picnics always reminded her of lousy weather and the smell of gas.

“When I think ‘picnic’ I think of the Park Rynie beach with grey clouds and my mother trying to light a gas fire in the wind. We had a blue tartan picnic blanket that came from Scotland and we always had the same food and drink: roast chicken, boiled eggs, salad and rolls with Coca-Cola for the children and tea for my parents, once my mother had managed to light the gas fire.”

She confirmed my impression that few families picnic regularly these days.

“We go on a picnic only occasionally, maybe once a year, because it’s just not safe anymore.”

On reflection, I realised that it is my parents who most often picnic with my children when they take them walking in one of the local nature reserves. Fortunately for my offspring, there are no granite kopjes nearby and the route marches I recall have slowed down to a manageable pace with lots of stops to investigate insects, plants or animal droppings.

The dogs have long since died and that old canvas rucksack has been replaced with a modern daypack, but it still carries juice and biscuits. Since the next generation is being initiated into the ritual of picnics, I am hopeful that this family tradition won’t die out completely.

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