July 3, 2017

"Rope in Your Chickens": Picnics and Picnic Food

by Molly Kruckenberg, Research Center Director

An American pastime with European origins, picnics were and continue to be a popular Montana activity.  Picnics often celebrate holidays, like the Fourth of July and Labor Day; gather together school, social and church organizations; or are just simply a way to get together with friends.  Picnics have been defined as “an outdoor meal distinguished by other meals because it requires the leisure to get away from home.” [1]

As a young child, Vera Whitney attended a Fourth of July picnic near Three Buttes in the Sidney area.  Early on the 4th, her mother “killed and dressed the first fryers of the season, made big bread-and-butter sandwiches and packed a jar of pickles.  The potato salad and white layer cake she had made the evening before were packed up” too, for the journey to the picnic area.  Spreading out their repast on a white tablecloth, the Whitney family enjoyed speeches, singing, and the usual picnic activities.  The highlight of the event for young Vera, though, was the call of “’Ice cream and lemonade! Come and get it.’”  That ice cream was made even more spectacular by being served in a cone.  The taste of the cone, her first, was like a “sweet, crisp cookie” to Vera. [2]

“Women with Ice Cream Cones, July 4, 1908.”  Evelyn Cameron, photographer.  
MHS Research Center Photograph Archives, PAc90-87.G027-006.  

Montanans picnic for many different reasons mostly in the summer and fall, when the weather is conducive to eating outdoors.  Whether private group picnics or community gatherings, picnics served to bring people together.  A group of 15 or 20 young people from Helena ascended Mount Helena in October of 1875 for a “genuine frolic.”  After their ascent, they “partook of a lunch . . . prepared in a style commensurate with the jolly occasion and capable of satiating the keen appetites that were engendered by ascending this precipitous mount.”  They were further “pacified” with two kegs of Nick Kessler’s XXX lager beer. [3]   On a larger scale but no less jubilant scale, the citizens of Ekalaka enjoyed a picnic at Medicine Rocks on August 15th, 1909 in a gathering “given by everybody, for everybody.”  Residents were advised to “rope in your chickens and cook ‘em up for the big feed.”  A “pie wagon” was available to take a load of food out to the picnic site.  Featuring baseball, music and speeches as well as a community feast, the Medicine Rocks picnic brought together all the activities and foods often associated with picnics. [4]

The Fourth of July serves as one of the most popular reasons to picnic.  In 1877 residents of the Bitterroot Valley celebrated the Fourth of July with a picnic that took place “about a mile from the home of Charlos [sic], the chief of the Flathead Indians, in a grove of large pine near a clear babbling brook, which meandered laughingly down from St. Mary’s mountain, across the bench land and into the Bitter Root River.”  As for food, the residents laid a table that “fairly tottered with its heavy load of good things,” including bread, boiled ham, chickens and turkey, several types of berries, pies (“great piles of them”), doughnuts, cookies, jelly cakes, confectioneries, pound cakes, and for dessert strawberries and cream.  At the end of the prodigious meal, there “remained enough to supply a meal for as many more.” [5]

Newspaper articles about picnics in Montana reveal three common foods consumed at picnics:  ice cream, lemonade and fried chicken. [6] While Montana cookbooks include recipes for ice cream, recipes for lemonade and fried chicken are not as prevalent, perhaps because the recipes were already known to the women making the dishes.  But a Dillon recipe from the 1908 cookbook Tested Recipes gave instruction to the inexperienced cook:
Chicken, To Fry – (Southern) – After you have killed and dressed your chicken, wash it in cold water thoroughly with a clean linen cloth.  Carve the chicken and season it with salt and pepper to suit taste.  Sift on enough flour to cover each piece and mix the chicken and flour thoroughly.  Put the chicken into a frying pan with equal parts of hot bacon grease and butter, or all butter, and then cover the pan with a lid.  Fry the chicken slowly, and to a nice, crisp brown. [7]

Picnics in Montana are varied, in food, occasion, and setting; yet they are the same in offering a social gathering in a setting away from home.   Whether held for a special occasion like the Fourth of July, to bring together a group of likeminded people, or for no reason whatsoever, picnics allowed participants an opportunity to relax in a social setting while consuming favored foods.  From traditional shared dishes of fried chicken, lemonade and ice cream to hosted events featuring cream cone cocktail or picnic goulash, picnic food was meant to be prodigious in amount, portable, and easily eaten outdoors.  The call of come and get it at Montana’s “recreational feasts” [8] might be at any number of locations for any number of reasons, but it always meant good times and good food.

[Title] "Big Picnic at Medicine Rocks.”  The Ekalaka Eagle, August 6, 1909. P1.
[1] Levy, Walter.  The Picnic: A History.  Rowman & Littlefield:  London, 2013.  P.5
[2] Page 83-85, Vera Whitney Gault Reminiscence.  SC2357.  Montana Historical Society Research Center Archives.
[3] “The Picnic on Mount Helena.”  Helena Weekly Herald, October 21, 1875.  P7.
[4] “Big Picnic at Medicine Rocks.”  The Ekalaka Eagle, August 6, 1909. P1.  Ad, “For the Picnic.”  The Ekalaka Eagle, August 6, 1909. P1.
[5] “Fourth of July on the Bitter Root.”  Rocky Mountain Husbandman., August 23, 1877, p7.
[6] For examples see:  “Boulder Valley.”  Rocky Mountain Husbandman, July 12, 1877, p2; “The Picnic on the Hillside.” The Bozeman Weekly Chronicle.  May 6, 1885, p.3; “The M.E. Sunday School Picnic.” The Wibaux Pioneer.  July 18, 1913. P.4; “Organized Farmers Attention.” The Producers News.  June 13, 1919, p. 1.
[7] Tested Recipes.  Dillon, Mont.: Tribune Publishing Co., 1908. P19.

[8] Levy.  The Picnic. P.5.