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Parks and recreation (and picnics)
The importance and value of shared spaces through commensality, plus reading recommendations for the week
Although I’ve been part of field trips and school picnics, I didn’t really start picnicking until I moved to London to study in 2018, taking advantage of the city’s many green spaces—including the vast unkempt garden that was shared by my flatmates and myself, where we threw more barbecue parties than required. London’s parks were languid, free spaces that boosted the pleasures and adventures of eating solo, or with others.
As much as I’ve consumed rice and potato curry on trains; hot bajjis and fried fish on beaches; sandwiches, fruits and alcohol at friends’, I could combine everything and take it with me to a park in London. I could make it as extravagant as possible or as meagre as I wished, which was the case on days I had classes—I would walk to Russell Square for lunch and a cigarette or lounge on the small patch of green on campus. If my friends were free, we’d sit together and talk, sharing space and time, till one of us had the will to walk back to the next class. But alone is how I liked my lunches at London’s parks, not seeking immediate company because there were other students, professors, and office workers all eating their meal deal sandwiches on the grass. We were eating together, alone.
London introduced me to the joys of sitting outdoors (or sometimes, lying down), on a blanket meant for two people but holding just me and my food, books, wine, cigarettes, and pencils. At the slightest hint of sun, I rushed to Regent’s with my packed supplies; if I was lazy, I’d walk to (then) local Markfield Park. Once, I baked cookies, and the next time I made a cold lentil-pomegranate salad with generous helpings of salty feta. I was answerable to no one but myself, an overwhelming feeling of sweet liberation.
When I was working in Mumbai, I used to walk from Lower Parel station to the back entrance of our office building, passing by (a path under the railway bridge) hawkers selling chai, pohe, all kinds of fried foods enclosed in pav, kebabs, sweets, snacks, fruits, and the all-important tea stalls that also sold cigarettes (important), biscuits, and after-cigarette refreshments (v. important). My colleagues and I would start the day with a cigarette, smoke another during our first chai break, then one after lunch, and ending our shifts with one more cigarette by the nearby tea stall discussing work, love, and life while passing around cups of cardamom chai and restlessly flicking the lighter thinking about catching an overcrowded train to go home—just to repeat everything again, the next day.
As a child, I’ve read the occasional Enid Blyton book where picnic and feasts meant tinned pineapple, hard boiled eggs, pork pies, eclairs, sausages, sandwiches, and ginger beer—foods both familiar and alien. I may have thought of the odd sandwich shared amongst friends or a few hot samosas, but a picnic in Chennai summer has never made sense to me. Our parks are small, the grass is hardly ever green, and the sun is constantly beating on our backs. It makes sense to stay indoors, or go to the beach in the evenings. But outdoor spaces have always been the remit of the public, whether it’s walks at 5 am (this city rises early), group studies and photo shoots in the park, canoodling couples in the sand, or mall hangouts during weekends.
One of my most memorable picnics involve other people: at Marina Beach, I watched a family of 12 share potato chips, lemon rice, tomato rice, chicken curry, meen kozhambu, and lots of juicy mangoes, passing the food to each other on flowery plastic plates and playing ball in the water, not caring that their saris and vettis were drenched in the process. I’ve since yearned for that feeling—of both abandon and inclusion. The picnic wasn’t about food, but food was at the centre of their activities, which were intimate. Then again, the substance of kinship always is even if it is out in the open.
A bit of etymology here, as is my wont. Picnic is derived from the French word ‘pique-nique’: a social gathering where each attendee would bring a portion of food to share, to “each pick a bit”, according to Dr David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum. The French term finds mention in the 1692 edition of the Origines de la Langue Francoise de Menage. Four decades prior, the Origines de la Langue Francoise de Menage mentions piquer, or to pick up, which may have just meant a leisurely way to eat food; nique means something of little importance. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language does not have an entry for picnic. It’s only in 1800 did the word picnic appear in the English language.
Not surprising then that the French love their picnics as evidenced by art: Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) is an iconic example. Besides the outcry it caused for depicting a naked woman (in the foreground) and a half-dressed woman (in the background) picnicking with two fully clothed men in a grove, the scene is quite mundane in itself. It’s ordinary because eating together—or what the anthropologists call ‘commensality’—is ordinary. But extraordinary things are usually birthed from the seemingly ordinary.
Commensality, however, does find a mention in Johnson’s dictionary. Derived from the Latin ‘commensalis’, it is mentioned in the dictionary as “fellowship of table; the custom of eating together”. If eating (for oneself) is essentially a selfish individual act, eating together becomes a substance of common action. Eating together is key to social organisation and ritual, and is a way to understand social and political relations, authority, ethics and cosmologies. But eating together is as much about exclusion as it’s about inclusion—the idea that people can come together with food is sometimes challenging. It can be replete with hierarchies, competition, ambiguities, and is (more often that not) dependent on gendered labour divisions.
What happens when (eating together in) public spaces come/s under scrutiny?
In the case of Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, ludicrous new rules by the horticulture department of Karnataka dictate that couples cannot sit close together nor can food be consumed (among other laughable rules) in the park. The reason that the department cites is cleanliness, which “ultimately invites rats” according to one official. Never mind that rats are an innate part of urban life and ecology. Ultimately, what municipal bodies forget are that parks are symbols of community; they are communal spaces that exist as leisure spots in otherwise overcrowded cities. Moreover, in a conservative and congested country where intimacy is difficult and constantly policed, gatekeeping public spaces only reinforces moralities in the name of ‘culture’.
Existence of free spaces such as parks or beaches, open to all, helps in creation of places that is otherwise inaccessible from the city’s urban fabric. Such spaces where people gather can also, like the family picnic at Marina Beach, allow for embodied experiences of migrants, the marginalised, and women, while also serving as sites of aesthetic, nostalgia, as well as forgetting. Jonathan Nunn writes about a similar issue in London where local authorities closed off commons (and barbecue areas) citing ‘antisocial behaviour’. Urban spaces such as these have long been contested as sites of aesthetic and sensorial importance rather than considering them as community, fundamental necessity, and producing cultural meaning.
In a previous newsletter on aesthetic, I wrote about Marina Beach and the Loop Road facing forced aestheticisation. All three issues—the eviction of fish stalls for encroachment and traffic, the stern rules in place at Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, and the closing off commons—are essentially the same. The idea of a hospitable city doesn’t lie in just mainstream aesthetics, value in tourism, or images of postmodernity. It lies in community and spaces that are accessible for mass consumption, which dynamic city life seldom accommodates. Ordinary, everyday experiences deserve to be mapped, whether picnic, gatherings, barbecues, or just hanging out alone by oneself.
This essay on the history of picnics is a delightful read.
Loved this interview by Andrew Janjigian with Homa Dashtaki, the author of Yogurt&Whey. My mum usually just blends the whey and the yoghurt, along with some water, salt, asafoetida, curry leaves, green chillis, and coriander to make spiced buttermilk.
Don’t Panic Pantry by Noah Galuten has some fun cooking videos: the smoked cabbage wedge (a relief from constantly seeing only grilled hispi cabbage recipes on my Insta feed), cold sesame soba (the sauce!), garbage sandwiches, and pork ragu are some of my favourites.
This piece on culinary-cultural vulturism by MB is one of the smartest and funniest pieces I’ve read all year (okay 6 months in).
I’ve been reading true crime stories when I can’t fall asleep, and this story about a sketch artist and a grieving mother coming together to solve a mystery has stayed with me. Gripping.
Here’s a Cormac McCarthy reading list.
Portuguese colonisers introduced leavened bread to Goa in the early 17th century, using toddy to ferment the dough instead of yeast, and the pão travelled from Goa to Mumbai, becoming the staple pav.
A sort of gravy/curry with fish.
Responding to a question that picnic supposedly contained racist overtones: https://jimcrowmuseum.ferris.edu/question/2004/january.htm
There are many paintings of al fresco dining in art and listing them would make for a boring read, so apologies.
The outcry was due to the suggestion that the women may have been prostitutes, thanks to the naked woman’s unflinching gaze.