Story: Picnics and barbecues

Page 3. Picnic food and the barbecue

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Filling the picnic basket

Nineteenth-century picnickers filled their baskets with cold meats, poultry, pies, cakes and tarts. Bacon or mutton chops were cooked on open fires, with potatoes baked in the embers. By the 1880s sandwiches and sausage rolls were staple picnic fare. At the seaside, picnickers collected oysters, mussels and other seafood to add to their meal. Salads were a must for summer food by the early 20th century, and canned foods such as salmon or sardines became widely available.

A picnic with Ngāpuhi

At a Boxing Day picnic in 1888 Hokianga Ngāpuhi played host to their settler neighbours. The huge hāngī-cooked meal was followed by sports.’The European youngsters had no show with the Maori boys and girls who ran completely away from them in every race.’1 The Pākehā men, on observing their hosts’ fine physical condition, quietly dropped all suggestions of a tug-of-war competition.

At 19th-century community picnics, whole roast oxen were sometimes laid on. Hāngī might be set up by Māori, giving their Pākehā neighbours a chance to experience Māori cuisine. Big events, such as Labour Day picnics, had refreshment tents, but picnickers also brought their own food.

Picnic tea was traditionally brewed over an open fire in a billy, often simply a blackened jam tin with a wire handle. In the 1930s the thermette made its appearance. This New Zealand invention was a simple metal water container, with a central funnel for burning material to heat the water. Thermettes were used extensively, but from the 1960s became less common. In contrast the Thermos, available in New Zealand since 1908, continues to be a standard device for taking hot drinks to picnics.

Lemonade, iced tea or beer were kept in metal buckets with ice. From the 1960s New Zealanders adopted the chilly bin (insulated cooler) to keep drinks and food cold.

The modern picnic still involves sandwiches, salads and cakes. In the 2000s items such as hummus and guacamole are also found in the picnic basket.

The great Kiwi barbie

In a famous 2010 photo opportunity Prime Minister John Key sucked back a cold beer from the bottle, while Prince William handled the steaks on the barbie. The image suggested was of a warm, relaxed country, egalitarian, informal and welcoming, with plenty of good local food and drink.

The barbecue in New Zealand

In New Zealand before the 1950s the term barbecue referred to the North American method of slow meat roasting, involving spicy sauces. The word ‘barbecue’ was also sometimes used to describe a hāngī.

Since the 1950s the New Zealand (and Australian) barbecue became an outdoor meal with food, usually meat, grilled quickly over charcoal or gas. In contrast to picnics, barbecues are often held in the host’s backyard. Traditionally barbecue cooking is carried out by males.

The barbecue appears to have become a widespread activity in New Zealand as suburban living created an environment for backyard entertaining. Early barbecues were often homemade brick or drum constructions, using charcoal as a fuel. In the early 1970s people began to use free-standing kettle grills or hotplates, while the late 1970s saw the introduction of the gas-fired grill. Garden designs began to incorporate special areas for barbecuing.

The barbecue has become a promotional tool to present an image of New Zealand to the rest of the world. Embassies and trade delegations hold ‘barbies’ showcasing New Zealand’s meat, seafood and wine. A video for the 2012 Frankfurt book fair, promoting New Zealand as the fair’s guest of honour, showed New Zealand authors meeting at a convivial backyard barbecue. Barbecues, informal and egalitarian summer events, have come to symbolise the best features of the Kiwi way of life.

  1. Star, 11 January 1889, p. 5. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Picnics and barbecues - Picnic food and the barbecue', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013