1927 The chop picnic explained

Chop Picnic 1920s - Image from a contemporary calendar, King Island Museum

Although we can find references to “chop picnics” as early as 1923, the idea was still novel enough in 1927 to require an explanation. In that year, “Corinella” described the chop picnic in her column in the children’s pages of The Sun News-Pictorial:

It’s a picnic really only instead of wasting half the morning cutting sandwiches and buttering bread, you simply buy some chops at the butcher’s, take a loaf of bread, some butter, knives and a box of matches. When you’ve got a good fire burning, grill the chops on the red coals. Cut a pointed stick, poke it through the chop, and then cook it. When it’s beautifully done, and smelling delicious, pop it on some bread and butter and eat it the best way you can. When you’re finished you are certainly a little choppy round the mouth, but you’ll vote it the best chop you’ve tasted.

In her book Bold Palates, food historian Barbara Santich has written at length about the chop picnic. As Santich explains, the practice of grilling meat on a stick suspended over a campfire already had a long history in colonial times. She quotes a detailed description from Louisa Meredith, from her 1850 book My Home in Tasmania.

Here I was initiated into the bush art of ‘sticker-up’ cookery, and for the benefit of all who ‘go a-gypsying’ I will expound the mystery. The orthodox material here is of course kangaroo, a piece of which is divided neatly into cutlets two or three inches broad and a third of an inch thick. The next prerequisite is a straight clean stick, about four feel long, sharpened at both ends. On the narrow part of this, for the space of a foot or more, the cutlets are spotted at intervals, and on the end is placed a piece of delicately rosy fat bacon. The strong end of the stick-spit is now stuck fast and effect in the ground, close by the fire, to leeward; care being taken that it does not burn. The bacon on the summit of the spit, speedily softening in the genial blaze, drops a lubricating shower of tich and savoury tears on the leaner kangaroo cutlets below, which forthwith drizzle and steam and sputter with as much ado as if they were illustrious Christmas beef grilling in some London chop-house under the gratified nose of the expectant consumer. 

The meat, more often, was not kangaroo but mutton chops – a staple, along with damper and tea, of the bushman’s meal.

While the practice was long established, the earliest use of the term chop picnic that I can find refers to an event proposed for the Girl Guides in Victor Harbour in 1923. “All who attend the festivity bring a chop or cutlet and so on,” the local paper reported. “And the girls are to be taught how to cook in the open similar to the Boy Scouts.” In following years, there are a many references to organised excursions featuring a chop picnic for groups such as the Guides, the Y.W.C.A. and church youth fellowships.

But the idea of grilling a chop in the great outdoors had growing appeal, with organised events (not always in the bush) to support charity. By the 1930s, the chop picnic had made it into the social pages, when a British baroness and cookbook author visited the colonies:

One of Lady Sysonby’s anticipated pleasures during her short visit to Sydney is a “chop picnic” in which she will participate with Mrs. Hubert Fairfax on Saturday. Their busy day will include a visit to Koala Park, and in between they will draw up their car in some bushy spot, light their own fire, and grill chops on a griller. “I know it should be a green stick,” Mrs. Fairfax said, “but a grill iron is easier.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 1936)

The Macquarie Dictionary’s Australian Word Map section suggests the term may have persisted for longer in South Australia than elsewhere. Even in the 1930s – and certainly through the 1940s and ’50s – most of the references to chop picnics are in South Australian newspapers, with Victoria coming in a distant second.  By the 1960s, the South Australians are almost the only ones not to have universally adopted the term barbecue.

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