A tale of two picnics: a riff on Mary Douglas’ Deciphering a Meal

A tale of two picnics: A riff on Mary Douglas’ Deciphering a Meal.

If she’d thought about it, Gertrude Stein might have written ‘A picnic is a picnic is a picnic’. But for the anthropologist Mary Douglas, a picnic, like a Tolstoyan family, is a picnic in its own way. In her 1972 article Deciphering a Meal, Douglas schematically decoded the meals in her home to show how a meal can be a way of ‘discovering the intensity of meanings and their anchorage in social life’.[i]

I happened to re-read Douglas’ paper the day after having the second of two lunchtime picnics held on consecutive days in different venues at different events and with different people. I so much enjoyed her analysis that I thought it would be interesting – and fun – to see what applying it to the two picnics would show were the ‘meanings’ coded in each.

The two picnics

The first picnic was the lunch meal at the 5th Food and Words (F & W), a one-day writer’s festival devoted to food held annually in Sydney, Australia.[ii] It was devised by James Viles from biota, a Good Food Guide hatted fine dining restaurant, noted for its use of locally sourced, sustainable seasonal produce.[iii] The picnic came in individual cardboard boxes which participants directly ate from while sitting in the courtyard of The Mint, a re-purposed colonial sandstone building in Sydney’s Macquarie Street, venue for the event. In the box were a humus and fava bean dip with wafers; a mushroom and onion pie; a quinoa, kale, chickpea and beetroot salad topped with tender batons of chicken; a wedge of sheep’s cheese accompanied by slices fig salami; a thin slice of biscuit bread; and a dessert of stewed fruits. Each of these came in an individual plastic dishette (the dessert being in a plastic glass) with all of them neatly nestled like in a bento box. We could drink white wine, mineral water or juice. The picnickers, the event attendees, were singles or small groups of friends, more women than men, mostly middle-aged and older, and would probably see themselves as being in the broad church of small ‘f’ foodies.

The second picnic was also a lunch, this one was a belated Father’s Day celebration for me and my children held in a park adjacent to the beach at Stanwell Park, south of Sydney. It preceded our attendance at the annual Ganesh Visarjan, a Hindu festival which we usually got to for the spectacle of its parade to the sea though none of us are Hindu. We sat in a circle on picnic blankets and ate off individual plates with each of us contributing a ‘dish’ to the meal. The food was: a shoulder of lamb covered in marmalade then wrapped in pastry and baked; a green leaf salad with a red wine vinegar dressing; a potato salad with wasabi mayonnaise; slices of double smoked ham; slices of a hot sopresso; two cheeses with thin wafers; a loaf of sourdough; a horseradish relish; and a sponge and fruit ‘flan’. We had white and red wine, mineral water, beer and non-alcoholic beer as well for one of us who does not drink alcohol. Our ages ranged from 15 years to 64 years and we were evenly gender mixed.

Douglas’ schema

Following are Douglas’s principles in brief that will be used to decode the two picnics.[iv]

Meals versus drinks

  • There are two contrasted food categories – food and drinks. Both are social events, though food can be taken for private nourishments.
  • Meals contrast with drinks in the relation between solids and liquids. Meals are a mixture of solid foods accompanied by liquids. With drinks the reverse holds.
  • Meals tend to be named in their sequence through the day – breakfast, lunch, dinner as the main names. Drinks have named categories – cocktails, coffee, tea – but are not named events.
  • Drinks are not structured into early, main, light.
  • The event drinks is not structured into first course, second course, main, sweet.
  • Meals properly require the use of at least one mouth-entering utensil per head, drinks are limited to mouth-touching ones.
  • Meals require a table, a seating order, restriction on movement and on alternative occupations.
  • Drinks and their solids may all be sweet. But a meal is not a meal if it is all in the bland-sweet-sour dimensions.
  • A meal incorporates a number of contrasts, hot and cold, bland and spiced, liquid and semi-liquid, and various textures.
  • A meal incorporates cereals, vegetables, and animal proteins.


  • Drinks are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen, and family. Meals are for family, close friends, honoured guests. The grand operator of the system is the line between intimacy and distance. However, there are smaller thresholds and half-way points, for example an entirely cold meal served to friends would imply they were more distant friends; a barbecue can bridge intimacy and distance.
  • Admission to even the simplest meal incorporates our guest unwittingly into the pattern of solid Sunday dinners (two main courses hence different to the weekly meal which has only one), Christmases (which have three main courses), and the gamut of life cycle celebrations. Whereas sharing of drinks expresses by contrast only too clearly the detachment and impermanence of simpler and less intimate social bonds.
  • The precoded message of the food categories is the boundary system of a series of social events.
  • Each meal is a structured event which structures others in its own image.
  • Each meal carries something of the meaning of other meals, the upper limit of its meaning being set by the range incorporated in the most important member of its series.
  • People reach out to the meal structure of their cultural environment, develop it and interact with it according to their intentions. But they may not be conscious of exactly what meanings they are encoding when they do it.

Douglas, rounds off this exposition thus: ‘But the problems [of interpreting the meal] cannot be answered here, where the cultural universes is unbounded, can usefully be referred to a more closed environment’.

Very well, I take up the challenge of applying her schema to the ‘closed environment’ of my two picnics.

Were these two picnics Douglassian meals?

On balance, yes.

Both picnics had solids accompanied by liquids (wine, beer, water) and not the other way around. Both were named for their position in the sequence of meals in a day. They were both picnic ‘lunches’, that is, the generally accepted term for the mid-day meal in an Australian order of meals.

Both meals certainly needed a mouth entering utensil to successfully consume them – in both cases mostly fork though the F & W dessert was generally attacked with a spoon whereas the family flan was forked as no-one had brought spoons. Both also allowed for using fingers as a utensil, which will be taken up later when we discuss the meanings of the meals.

Both meals went beyond the bland-sweet-sour dimensions incorporating umami, which Douglas would have experienced on the palate which had not been accepted as the fifth taste as the time she wrote this article, saltiness, and heat in the case of the horseradish and sopresso at the family picnic. Both incorporated cereals, vegetables and animal protein (we will discuss the essentiality or otherwise of the latter soon).

Both allowed more freedom of movement than the paradigmatic Douglassian meal. Neither was held at tables with seating.  But both did expect that participants would not engage in non-meal related activity during the meal.

But both also strayed from the Douglassian principles of the meal in important ways that point to the meanings coded in picnics as a class of meal and to their different degrees of intimacy and distance as social events and to this I now turn.

The meanings of the picnics

Picnics in general, I think, are one of the ‘smaller thresholds’ in the ’line between intimacy and distance’. They forge intimacy between groups whose members otherwise maintain a degree of distance as a barbecue can. Work colleagues who otherwise would not have a meal together can have an ‘office picnic’ to mark celebratory events – birthdays, babies, marriages, group successes – or to build relationships that are necessary for work together. They work well for younger children’s birthdays where pressure is on to invite not only a child’s school intimates but those more distant classmates whom the social rules of school relationships say have to be invited to this kind of celebration, and also of course enable the guests’ parents to be part of the meal without having to have relationships that last longer than the duration of the picnic.

The F & W picnic expressed an intention to create intimacy between acquaintances for at least the period of the event because it was less structured than a formal meal for honoured guests. In its way, the individual cardboard picnic box also promoted intimacy, encoding casualness but at the same time a privacy or at least individuation.

The family picnic was much more strongly an expression of intimacy. Everyone contributed something to it, and what was contributed had been discussed in advance so each family unit brought a different element and together a meal was built. There was choice in what could be brought by any one participant as long as it fell into one of the broad good categories – meat, vegetable, bread, dessert. The F & W meal was catered and the meal was set, everyone got the same dishes in their box. But in both, any one guest could choose what to eat or not eat from what was on offer, so while both incorporated the elements of the pattern of the Douglassian grand meal, the Sunday dinner, any guest could eat of the elements they chose and in the sequence the chose – cheese before or after the main, the humus dip before or after the pie, without reproof. The exception in both cases was the dessert. Indeed, in the family meal the flan did not make its appearance out of its box until all the other elements of the meal had been cleared away, but this encoded for very particular meanings as one member promising to bring a flan and then not bringing it is a running joke at family gatherings and so much had to be made of its appearance on this occasion.

Both broke down the distance of the Douglassian paradigmatic meal by being composed of entirely of cold food. Even the roast at the family picnic had been prepared much earlier and transported to the meal menu and was not re-heated before serving.

Both also created intimacy by taking account of guests’ dietary strictures or wishes. The F & W picnic box had elements that were suitable for vegetarians – the humus, the pie, the dessert, one that could have been converted for the purpose if the vegetarian was not very strict and lifted the chicken off the quinoa salad, and one that would also serve if the person ate dairy – the cheese. Three of the dishes were also gluten free. At the family picnic it was known in advance that one member was vegetarian so two salads were made. We knew no-one was gluten intolerant and so no accommodation was made for that. In both meals, however, vegan choices were limited.  The need to meet dietary strictures poses interesting dilemmas for balancing intimacy and distance.  It’s common now for event meals like F & W to ensure that attendees don’t feel excluded for lack of options. Our family gatherings also take account of this and in our case usually ups the ante on vegan food but in this case the vegan family member we knew would not be present.

At the family picnic everyone sat or lay in a circle facing each other with the food in the centre in easy reach of all, creating a closed circle of intimacy. This was different to the F & W picnic where small groups ate together scattered around a courtyard, in some of which groups two or more sets of friends came together to create a new degree of intimacy for a brief period, or where someone might have part of the meal with one group of friends and then move to have other parts of the meal with another.

The serving of drinks also expressed intimacy and distance. At F & W guests could help themselves to or be served a glass of wine pre-poured by wait-staff and served off a tray. Grabbing a bottle and pouring your own was both not possible as the bottles were not accessible, and would have been seen as crossing a boundary set for the meal, too much intimacy. At the family picnic, the family member sitting near the wine or the mineral water poured the drink and handed it across or passed the bottle itself.

Both carried meanings of other meals whose ‘upper limit of its meaning [was] set by the range incorporated in the most important member of its series’. For F & W I think the most important member of the series was the formal conference dinner which would be at table, a set menu, courses following in their prescribed order, served by wait-staff and where the choice of dining companion may be set by others and where there is often a table allocated for particular honoured guests.

The most important member of the series for the family picnic is the celebratory family meal as this was an occasion when family members who no longer live together, or who indeed have never lived together, came together to express their identity as a family through the intimacy of feeding each other.

[i] Douglas, Mary (1972) ‘Deciphering a Meal’ in Daedalus Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Winter 1972: Myth, Symbol and Culture

[ii] http://www.foodandwords.com.au

[iii] http://www.biotadining.com/

[iv] I have used Douglas’s own words here mostly.

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