Survival Struggle to Sausage Sizzles

Relaxing picnics and scrummy barbecues exude that special Kiwi summer feeling – no span of warm, sunny days is complete without a barbecue, or a picnic at least. Over the past couple of centuries outdoor eating has become a novel activity for many people, reserved for recreation or special occasions, alone or with company.

As we all know however, outdoor eating was the norm for the majority of our history. Our focus here is on picnics and barbecues, as well as what makes them special to us.

1) Camping and cooking out in the bush near Hakatere. Photo taken on a hunting trip.jpg

Centuries Behind

The word ‘picnic’ was derived from the French term ‘pique-nique’, meaning a gathering where each person contributes food or drink. By the start of the nineteenth century, the British adopted ‘picnic’ to refer to outdoor meals.

For early European settlers across the country, including what was then called Ashburton County, outdoor eating was a necessity rather than an activity enjoyed by the outdoorsy well-to-do. Meals were normally cooked over an open fire, harking back to the common cooking methods of the previous centuries and beyond.

As described in A Hewson’s ‘Early Days in the Ashburton County’, the earliest living conditions would have necessitated outdoor cooking and eating, considering that there were few or no buildings present.

2) A picnic held by the Ashburton Bakers in 1901 at Longbeach..jpg

Hewson describes the early lodgings at Mount Peel Station, which was first taken up in 1855 or 1856. He claims that the first house on the site was “built of cabbage trees stuck upright in the ground, the cracks plastered up with clay, the roof being thatched with snowgrass.”

Abundant illustrations and photographs of groups preparing food outdoors around this time confirm the necessity of the practice rather than it being done for novelty’s sake, or as a leisure activity. This makes perfect sense as, of course, you would not want to risk burning down your dwelling over a piece of charred mutton or two!

3) Ashburton MSA picnic at Sharplin Falls, about 1910.jpg

Picnics go mainstream

Naturally, as New Zealand became a more urbanised nation and caught up with the world, the need to cook over an open fire faded away. In line with the rest of the urbanised world, New Zealanders could now enjoy recreational outdoor eating events more often. Picnics and barbecues quickly became Kiwi staples, and their popularity is attested to by the abundance of group picnic photos and postcards in our collection.

Overgrown paddocks and the seaside were popular early picnic destinations, and still continue to be. Streams, waterfalls, and forest tracks were and still are prime picnic country also.

Up to the twentieth century and into the present, the pastime of picnics have shown their longevity, as they still prove to be a popular excuse to get friends and family together out in the sun. Bikkies, slices, cordial, and ham sandwiches– what’s not to love?

After all, who would say no to a picnic out in the Domain or out on Baring Square West on a bright, warm December afternoon?

4) Example of a masterfully crafted basket in our collection, which you could easily imagine full of picnic food.jpg

The Sausage Sizzle is Born (Hallelujah)

Picnics themselves are not a true Kiwi icon, but barbecues on the other hand – just another thing we Kiwis should be famous for instead of the Australians! The time-tested tradition of the backyard barbecue took off in the fifties, henceforth leaving an irreparable smear of metaphorical barbecue sauce across our recent cultural history that just won’t wash out. Over the last six or seven decades, modern barbecues have evolved from makeshift brick or drum barbecues, to hotplates or other similar implements, until the gas barbecue changed the game, allowing for easier grilling.

5) Example of an old Heatrae E.F. Ltd. electric grill from our collection.jpg

You can’t think of a Kiwi summer without a barbecue – it’s just quintessential Kiwiana. Images often flood the mind when considering summer activities, many of which include small sausage sizzles outside shops or at schools during lunch, backyard barbecues with eager dads crowding around the grill like ducks to breadcrumbs, or even large community gatherings with too few sausages and too much budget white bread – and of course plentiful tomato sauce. We hope you enjoy some outdoor dining over the summer too.

By Connor Lysaght



  1. Camping and cooking out in the bush near Hakatere. Photo taken on a hunting trip.
  2. A picnic held by the Ashburton Bakers in 1901 at Longbeach.
  3. Ashburton MSA picnic at Sharplin Falls, about 1910
  4. Example of a masterfully crafted basket in our collection, which you could easily imagine full of food
  5. Example of an old Heatrae E. F. Ltd. electric grill from our collection.



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