Five Questions with Lindy Mechefske author of Ontario Picnics: A Century of Dining Outdoors
1. What inspired you to do the book Ontario Picnics?
We remember picnics. They stick with us in a way that other things don't. Maybe it's because the history of picnics is essentially the history of humankind and hence so imprinted upon us. Picnicking is a return to who we are as a species — we and our earliest primate ancestors have been eating outdoors for over 55 million years. It's really only relatively recently on the human evolutionary timeline that we stopped being nomads, formed permanent settlements, began to tend crops, and moved further and further indoors.
I wanted to capture the history of picnics in the province because I think we have continually underestimated the fundamental importance of both food and community. The two are so intertwined — as exemplified by many of the photos in the book — and yet the gap between them is growing.
2. How would you describe this book and what surprised you most about working on it?
I would describe this book first and foremost as a tribute to Ontario, a nod to our history, and to all the people who live here. But it is also a reminder of the beauty of Ontario, the joy of picnicking, and the importance of community. The book is primarily a collection of photographs of Ontarians picnicking or dining outdoors from the 1800s right through to the 21st century, often accompanied by short anecdotes about the images.
What surprised me most about working on this book was that after poring over thousands of historical images of Ontarians dining outdoors, I looked at Ontario through fresh eyes. I saw a charm and beauty that I'd forgotten or taken for granted. I fell back in love with Ontario. And I felt proud of the province. Of its magnificent lakes and rivers, of the boreal forest, the Canadian Shield, of our lovely parks, our cities, our history, and of the spirit of our Peoples — both the First Nations and Indigenous People of Ontario and all the waves of immigrants who have landed here and now call Ontario home.
When I combed through museums and archives around the province, hunting for picnic images, I began to feel as though I was finding the essence of Ontario — all these wonderful, beautiful images of people and communities gathered outdoors, eating and playing together. I found images of picnics held on pristine, wild lakefronts in a time before privately owned cottages occupied so much of the province's waterfront. I discovered beautiful, powerful images of Indigenous People, of new immigrants, of church and faith communities, and of entire villages gathering to eat and celebrate together on lawns, in parks, in forests, on lakefronts and riversides and on the banks of canals. I found a rich, complex history of a beautiful province before highways and developments sprawled in all directions. And I also found a welcome reminder of the spirit of the people who lived and continue to live in this vast and magnificent province.
3. With everything happening right now, why should people care about picnics?
Eating together is a fundamental human experience. But coming together in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been endlessly challenging and sometimes outright dangerous. Picnicking is one of the safest ways we can meet with family and friends and enjoy time together. I think picnicking is something of a salvation during the pandemic.
4. What would you like people to take away from your book?
I would like Ontarians to fall back in love with Ontario like I did when I was working on this book. I would like them to see the vastness and variety and beauty of this province — the cities, the forests, the parks and trails, the wilderness of northern Ontario, and the fact that Ontario's thousands of lakes and rivers comprise nearly one fifth of the global water supply.
But mostly, I'd like people to pack a picnic and gather up their nearest and dearest and spend some time outdoors, eating and talking and playing — and even more importantly, building community and memories.
5. Who was the greatest influence in your life?
Without a second's hesitation — I would have to say the greatest influence on my life was my paternal grandfather, Harry Sutcliffe, who lived in Yorkshire, England. I don't think I would have the love affair with food that I do if it had not been for him. He put such care into food — it was how he expressed love.
I spent a lot of time with my grandfather when I was young and he taught me very early in my life how to cook – how to shell peas, and knead bread, and roll pastry. My first picnics were with my grandfather. He put such care into packing the picnic hamper. Sometimes there were Scotch eggs, or sausage rolls, and sometimes egg salad sandwiches. There were small packets of potato crisps and nearly always chocolate biscuits. Plus a flask of tea and a bottle of lemonade. If it was warm out, we'd stop for an ice cream cone. All these decades later, when I think of my grandfather, what I remember is this: food, love, joy.