Parties and Visits · The Vintage Kitchen · Vintage Entertainment

Plan a Summer Automobile Picnic

Family of five enjoying a picnic outdoors in the 1920s. Mom unloads the hamper while little sister enjoys a drink, little brother munches a sandwich, and dad talks to big sister, who sits with a warm cup of coffee or tea.. She holds a teacup in her hand and an insulated Thermos bottle sits in front of her.
Ah….. enjoying the great outdoors and meal at the same time!

Wide automobile ownership brought the great outdoors within reach of a whole new audience. Previously, people could go as far as the local streetcar, the interurban, or the train could take them. Or they could ride a horse if they had one. For short excursions a bicycle would work well. But nothing beat an auto when you wanted to plan a summer automobile picnic an hour or so away from home.

Taking off in your auto

The automobile picnic actually became a term on its own in magazine articles. With the extra space afforded by the car, owners could pack it to the windows and take practically every luxury with them when they headed out for their nature dinner.

When you think of supplies, you may want to use fabric shopping or tote bags instead of hampers if your car space is small. Bags can be hung from the clothing hooks or tucked into places that a large hamper will not go.

The prepared picnic addict kept a special shelf of supplies, plus more hidden away in the automobile trunk. If you wanted to pull a picnic together on short notice, you needed a few items on hand. Here is a bona fide Twenties picnic list that will help you plan your summer automobile picnic.

Supplies that make easy work of the picnic lunch

Wherever you store your seasonal things, you should have these available:

  • Paper plates
  • Tablecloth
  • Napkins
  • Cups
  • Doilies
  • Empty cracker boxes
  • Rolls of paraffin (waxed) paper
  • Strong market bags with handles (paper or burlap are good materials. Today I’d suggest a reusable fabric shopping bag. The Twenties picnicker would have loved such a light and useful item.)
  • Thermos bottle
  • Lemonade pail (a covered/lidded pitcher with ice makes a good, sanitary substitute.)
  • Picnic hamper

… And the shelf-stable food

These are the foods that should sit on a picnic shelf of your pantry so you can throw together a great vintage summer automobile picnic in a short amount of time:

  • Stuffed olives (or simply jarred olives. They really don’t need to be stuffed.)
  • Jellies (grape, strawberry, mango…whatever your family loves)
  • Grape and pineapple juice
  • Mixed pickles (these are different vegetables all pickled together like small onions, carrots, cauliflower, tiny peppers… and they often would be home canned in small 8-ounce jars for portability and cost. Check the Ball Blue Book if you want recipes (Amazon link; look for it wherever canning supplies are sold), or take a look at this Hot Pepper Mix of pickled vegetables from the Ball website to get an idea.
  • Pickled herring — sh! This is great on crackers as an appetizer. If you like pickled herring, that is.
  • Potted ham or chicken (This was an early solution for canned meats. Substitute a can or two of whatever meat you like canned. You can still buy potted meat. You may or may not like it. Think Spam.)
  • Canned soups
  • Boxed cookies
  • Boxed salted and plain crackers (This is calling for saltines and.. say.. an unsalted cracker like… do we still have those? I can’t think of any. If you know of an unsalted cracker on the market please let me know in the comments.)
  • Pimientos (This was the Twenties cook’s solution to adding color and nutrition of various meals. Roasted peppers in everything! They kept better this way than in the refrigerator and fresh.)
  • Canned salmon
  • Canned tuna
  • Prepared salad dressing
  • Sweet wafers (These are very thin cookies often used to decorate desserts. You may be able to find them in the grocery with the Italian cookies. Look on the top shelf. Pizzelles are a type of sweet wafer. If you happen to have an ice cream cone waffle iron, a small flat waffle cone makes a great wafer. I do, because gluten free ice cream cones are few and far between.)

Let’s not forget the refrigerator!

Lest you think that everything for your picnic needs to come off the longterm storage shelf, you will find a few items in your fridge to spice up your day:

  • Mayonnaise
  • Home-made salad dressings
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Cold boiled potatoes
  • Green peppers
  • Celery
  • Fresh tomatoes
  • Young onions (we would call these spring onions or green onions or scallions.)
  • Lettuce
  • Lemons
  • Fresh fruit

Of course you won’t use all of this! This is your store from which you pull all the things you need for the ultimate picnic. Maybe you have a fresh loaf of bread on hand. You can make tuna sandwiches, or chicken salad sandwiches. You can have hard boiled eggs (transport them cold in the shell and let everyone peel their own), or you can make deviled eggs (transport them filled and facing each other, wrapped in plastic or waxed paper. Unwrap them, twist them apart and each person has two deviled eggs!)

Pull some fresh fruit, some cookies, and pack a drink and you’re done! See how easy this can be when you have supplies ready and on hand? Not every picnic needs to be fried chicken and corn on the cob.

Note: if you are fixing anything with mayonnaise, please keep it chilled in a cooler until it’s consumed. Warm mayo, while it probably won’t kill you, is less than tasty on a sandwich or in deviled eggs.

Add a Sweet Surprise

If you like, and you have the time and the equipment, you can make up two quarts of ice cream a bit ahead of time, pack the container in a cooler with ice, and tuck it into the car for after lunch or dinner. Even simple vanilla made with milk, half and half (light cream), sugar, and vanilla tastes heavenly when it’s fresh.

Traditionally, of course, this could be made in the kitchen sink: fill the sink with ice and enough kosher or rock salt to make it even colder, and place a metal bowl into the sink with your prepared ice cream mixture. You should have enough ice to make the bowl cold. Start stirring. Stir until you think your arm is going to fall off, and then stir some more. Switch arms. Hold the bowl steady and stir with your other hand. Every now and then you’ll need to scrape the stuff off the sides of the bowl so new unfrozen stuff can take its place. Is this easy or quick? Nope. But I hear it works if you have no other alternative.

Don’t forget the auto supplies!

Filling your car with picnic-ready equipment will ensure that you’re always ready for a trip. Consider these additions:

  • Canned heat, stand, and pan to fit on it. (I keep my canned heat on the pantry shelf because my car gets really hot in the summer. You may want to, as well.)
  • Charcoal, in case you find yourself at a park with usable grills.
  • Toy pail and shovel for each child, especially if you are going where there is sand. Or rocks. Or loose dirt. Or leaves.

Two tasty on-the-go meals

Here are two options for picnic meals, Twenties style. Each of them can be made largely from the ingredients made above, with some additional items that you’ll notice. Substitute wherever you like. Plan your summer automobile picnic to make yourself happy. This is your picnic.

A Fireless Meal

For those days when you can’t fire up the park grill, here’s a menu that you can pack and go:

  • Potato salad (using those cold boiled potatoes from the fridge)
  • Eggs stuffed with Ham (minced ham + a little mayo in a hard boiled egg white. Use the yolks, or not.)
  • Sliced fresh tomatoes
  • Nut bread sandwiches (nut bread sliced thin; two pieces held together with cream cheese or butter)
  • Lemonade
  • Cookies (fresh or from the shelf)
  • Sliced fruit in Raspberry Jelly (this is probably calling for sliced fruit in something like raspberry jell-o)

An Automobile Lunch

  • Hot Buillion from the Thermos Bottle
  • with Salted crackers
  • Sandwiches of cream cheese and maple sugar with graham bread (this is a sweet sandwich to balance the soup; graham bread is whole wheat bread.)
  • Vegetable salad (prepared fresh or steamed cold veggies with a little salad dressing to perk them up, whatever you have)
  • Sweet pickles
  • Chocolate cake
  • Iced Tea

Neither of these will take a huge amount of time to put together if you already have most of the ingredients. And they are substantial meals for on the go. Use these, or rely on favorite foods when you plan your summer automobile picnic this year.

If you’d like an option for more of a tea-party picnic than a traditional picnic, you might like my entry on creating a summer porch party. These recipes require a bit more care in packing but they are just as tasty.