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Party like It’s 1929 – How to Have a Downton Abbey-style Picnic

The television sensation may have ended in 2015, but with a movie coming out in September of 2019, Downton Abbey remains wildly popular. And with good reason—the period drama centered around the early 20th-century wealthy family and their household servants was a critical and popular delight, with fans all over the world.

Many of those fans love the idea of the post-Edwardian British world, so very different from our modern times, and long to experience it. While staying at the real Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle in Newbury, UK) isn’t possible for everyone, there are ways to emulate some of the Grantham family’s antics. A summer picnic is a perfect occasion.

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To have a Downton picnic, you can’t just throw some sandwiches and a couple of cans of soda into a plastic bag and plop down in the front yard. Aristocratic picnics were fancier affairs, though still ultimately enjoyed outside in a casual atmosphere. To start, a true picnic basket is needed. They can be found in most department stores and many places online—it’s best to find one that is insulated and large enough to hold both food and eating gear.

Speaking of eating gear, plates and metal cutlery were de rigueur when one had a house full of servants to do the packing and the cleaning. But if you want to do things right, get a little fancier than paper plates. Reusable plastic plates and flatware are safer than glass or pottery, and also better for the environment. They’re also dishwasher safe, making cleanup easy when you get home.

But before you can set down those plates, you need something to set them on. Time for a proper picnic blanket! Modern versions are easy to transport (many roll up for ease) and easy to clean. They are also sturdier, many are waterproof and even padded for comfort. Find a nice flat place in a beautiful setting and lay down your blanket so the fun can begin.

The fun of a picnic is in the eating, of course. But what does one pack for a post-Edwardian outdoor luncheon? Believe it or not, the choices were very similar to what we enjoy today—cold meats, bread, cheese, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Salads were very popular choices, as this page from the 1921 New Dr. Price Cookbook can attest.

According to Tinnie Ellsworth, author of the 1901 Queen of the Household: A Carefully Classified and Alphabetically Arranged Repository of Useful Information on Subjects That Constantly Arise in the Daily Life of Every Housekeeper, there a perfect summer picnic menu would include “Cold Boiled Chicken. Tongue Sandwiches. Spiced Beef. Sardines. Jellied Chicken. Pickled Salmon. Spanish Pickles. Sweet Peach Pickles. Boston Brown Bread. Beans. Fresh Fruits. Imperial Cake. Neapolitan Cake. Small Fancy Cakes.”

The recipes—and the whole of her book—can be found online, if you’re in the mood for a challenge.

Speaking of challenges, keeping pests away from your picnic is always tricky. But there are ways to do it while still keeping with the spirit of the Granthams.

Avoid places too close to water, as that will bring more bugs. Bring candles to your feast—citrus scents and citronella are best; be sure they are in secure containers. And keep all food and drinks in closed, airtight containers when not serving or eating. These tips aren’t 100% foolproof, but they should keep away most of the troublesome critters.

We almost forgot beverages! For those who are so inclined, many early 20th century picnickers enjoyed a bit of a tipple. A thermos filled with classic chilled cocktails wouldn’t go amiss, or perhaps a crisp white wine.

Beer was and is a classic, of course, so don’t shy away from a handy six-pack. For non-alcoholic options, you can’t go wrong with classics like lemonade or—though the Brits would disapprove—iced tea. Summer Mocktail recipes are popping up everywhere lately, so consider getting a little fancy with seasonal fruit flavors.

Finally, have a little fun and dress for the occasion. A fancy hat to keep the sun off your face is never a bad choice, and both men and women can lounge in linen or crisp, cool cotton.

No one is saying you need to don a gown or a seersucker suit (by all means, do it if you wish, and please send pictures), but it’s fun to go a little further than shorts and a t-shirt. Picnics were—and are—a special occasion. We don’t have them all the time. So get a little fancy, release your inner Dowager Countess, and enjoy!

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