edible traditions


Northern Nevada’s longtime love affair with picnics.


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Before there were bars with patios and restaurants with decks, people in Northern Nevada began a love affair with picnics that can be traced back more than 100 years.

Motorized travels

Bowers Mansion and Donner Lake were all the rage as destinations for these early excursions. Between 1870 and 1900, most picnics were sponsored by Sunday schools or organizations such as the Freemasons, miners’ union, or the Society of Pacific Coast Pioneers. Soon, Moana and Lawton hot springs joined as favorite destinations. But within a few decades, automobiles became affordable and picnics really hit their stride.

In an article entitled Picnic Season Here In Greater Glory in the Nevada State Journal on June 27, 1926, the enormously florid writing read, “The weekend picnic tour becomes a summer event: office-bound men welcome it as a blessed release from care and worry … women eagerly prepare for it as a stimulating and a restful outing, as an invigorating taste, which obliterates the spectre (sic) of another week of household drudgery.”

The story goes on to show how food plays an important role.

“The main body of most picnics is the sandwich … however some parties, more pretentious than others, declare in favor of fried or broiled chicken, taken hot from the home to the picnic grounds in crocks or other containers.”

Other foods filling the hamper were pickles, olives, fruit, preserves, cakes, cookies, and chocolates. Lack a vehicle to take you to the country? No problem. In 1920, dealers such as Revada Sales offered a rebuilt Buick truck for $600, for use as a picnic car.

Marketing al fresco

As picnics became common, stores capitalized on the trend. Ads for picnic fare were frequent. In the Reno Evening Gazette from June 1933, a large ad for Ney & Oldham grocery touted, No Work! No Worry! Libby’s famous foods for your picnic basket.

This was a time when you could grab a can of pickles for 10 cents or “deviled meat” for four cents. For Memorial Day in 1940, an ad for Conant’s grocery said, For your picnic basket we will have a nice selection of rolls, cookies, fresh moist cakes, including lemon sponge rolls for 20 cents and meringue cream pies for 25 cents.

A recipe for stuffed rolls in the Nevada State Journal in March 1940 started with the enticement, At this time of year, when the sun is shining and the roads are open to travel, everyone seems to get the same urge — to picnic.

The recipe calls for chopping eggs, olives, onions, green peppers, pimento cheese, a can of crab meat, and condiments, and then stuffing them into wienie rolls. Mayonnaise, often seen as risky at picnics, is nowhere to be found. Hams, frequently the centerpiece of these outings, were described in terms such as sugar cured, Eastern, smoked, or fancy and were featured in just about every food ad of the period.

Center of social life

As picnics grew popular, they became the destination for social gatherings. The Baptists and the Episcopalians had picnics. So did the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, the nurses at Saint Mary’s Hospital, and an endless variety of organizations that celebrated the good weather with outdoor excursions. All included the picnic basket.

So with the sun shining and warm weather here to stay, grab your hamper or your picnic basket (whichever you call it) and head out of town — but you might want to leave the deviled meat behind.

Sharon Honig-Bear was a longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour.





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