There's nothing like a big American holiday such as the Fourth of July to highlight all the knots and branches in our culinary family tree. Traditions in the United States don't always travel in an orderly progression from generation to generation, being subject instead to all kinds of add-ons and weird turns.
We move all over the country, adding relatives, adopting strange new territories as home and acquiring along the way our uniquely polyglot culinary heritage.
Hot dogs, hamburgers and potato salad are the foundations, yes. But then add Norwegian lefse, Armenian stuffed grape leaves, German potato salad and tomatoes Italian style. Add strictly southern barbecue and Brunswick stew. Add New England fresh salmon and peas with egg sauce, and, in Gilroy, Calif., the garlic capital of the world, add garlic.
But one thing you can count on when you're talking about the American way on the Fourth of July is excess. It seems to be one time in the year when too much of everything is just about right.
When cooks from Bemidji, Minn., to Atlanta, Ga., were asked to bring forth memories of Independence Day, and celebratory food, all admitted (some immediately, some demurring for a period with all sorts of nice ideas about healthy little salads) that on the Fourth of July they always ate a lot. A lot of breads, a lot of barbecue, a lot of potato salad.
And a whole lot of desserts.
"A card table full," says Shirley Corriher of Atlanta. "Custard pie, pecan pie, coconut cake, caramel cake and white cake."
"Yellow cake and big thick slices of watermelon and blackberry cobbler," says Sally Riggs of Louisville. "And if you could get homemade custard ice cream to go with it you really had something. When it was done right and we were all there it was really a picture."
"Bread pudding, sweet potato pie, apple pie, homemade ice cream," says Loretta Harrison of New Orleans. "And if we're up to it, sometimes we make pound cake." Harrison's Creole candy-making skills, which show up especially in the form of her world-famous pralines, are this week being shared with audiences at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife on the Mall.
"Chocolate cake and apple pie and lemon pie," says Barbara Berg Swenson about the family smorgasbords in her childhood home of Bemidji. Swenson and her mother, Gudrun Berg, shared their Norwegian recipes with festival-goers last year, and with author Joan Nathan for her American Folklife Cookbook.
"Oh, and I forgot the doughnuts," says Swenson. "Somebody always brought doughnuts. They were real uneven, some little and some big. But they were so good. And the fudge, always a little container of fudge. Oatmeal cake, and generally a rhubarb dish. And cookies, everybody would bring their favorite kind. Norwegians love cookies."
"It really seems excessive now," says Riggs of her childhood Fourth of July picnics in Georgia and in Mayfield, Ky., "but it really was a grand atmosphere. The food was not sophisticated, ever, but it was delicious."
Even in Paris -- that's Paris, France -- where the American ambassador throws a big Fourth of July party every year, the biggest hit among the cognoscenti has been American ice cream, in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry versions, which is dished out of half-gallon cartons stashed in old-fashioned pushcarts.
It's mostly upper-echelon French who are invited to these parties, according to one American who has attended in the past. "It's interesting when you see some cabinet minister waiting in line to get his ice cream," he says, "and then watch it dripping down his arms."
The food is not always the only point of a Fourth of July party, however. Sometimes the point is to run wild with once-a-year cousins or critique the town fireworks. Sometimes, especially outside Washington, the point can be a bit of political fence mending.
"No good southern politician could pass up the opportunity that a Fourth of July picnic presents," says Corriher, "with people all full of barbecue and beer and feeling good about their country."
Corriher's friend Jimmy Bentley Jr., who retired in 1971 after 20 years in Georgia politics, feels so strongly about his family Fourth of July barbecue that he sat down and wrote out 4 1/2 pages of instructions to his children on the subject, just in case they should be tempted to forget any of the key details.
"Your great-grandfather, Tom Abercrombie," Bentley writes, "cooked a pig or two and a goat each July 4th for many, many years. We always follow his basic plans." Bentley's property includes a sawed-off tree trunk that speakers can stand on, should they feel the urge.
But local politics southern-style lacks the slick fast-lane feeling that Washington politics often has, and a sort of gently rolling modus operandi is adopted instead.
Jimmy Bentley's Fourth of July barbecue first of all requires what he calls a "six-pack pit," meaning it takes two people and a six-pack of beer to dig it.
And it requires time, hours and hours of it. The pig stays over the coals all night, having been blessed beforehand with "a few simple words of gratitude and good wishes and occasionally a brief poem, all of which is punctuated at our house by a mint julep." Great-grandfather Abercrombie, Bentley notes, used his own apple brandy for punctuation.
These hours spent waiting for the pig are by no means wasted. They are "the inspiration for stimulating all-night conversation, storytelling, exaggerations and nostalgic tunes," says Bentley. "People should bring along their favorite instrument, particularly harmonicas, guitars, banjos and fiddles. This kind of late-night singing and happiness extends your life span."
At the other end of the country in Waltham, Mass., Rose Avadanian and her husband, Berge ("Mister American, I call him, because if there were more men like him in the country we'd have no problems"), play a variation on that same theme. The Avadanians have Armenian roots.
The Avadanians go down to Cape Cod, where the whole family and whatever neighbors happen to be wandering by gather to eat hot dogs and hamburgers, yalanci (stuffed grape leaves) and baklava.
After dinner, says Rose Avadanian, "in between the rock-and-roll music the kids force us to listen to, we'll have a little Armenian music. My husband gets out the dombag, a drum that you put between your knees, and he'll beat that to the rhythm of the record player."
Meanwhile, in Tempe, Ariz., the temperature will be somewhere above 100 degrees on the Fourth of July and Barbara Colleary, mother of eight daughters and a daughter herself of the Boston Irish, will be sticking close to either the pool or the microwave oven.
"We use our microwaves more than any other area of the country," says Colleary, a cooking teacher, "because they don't give off any heat." Any conventional cooking that has to be done is out of the way very early in the morning.
But Colleary will be remembering the Fourth of July feasts in New England, which started off at 1 o'clock with "a traditional dinner of fresh salmon and an egg sauce, fresh peas and ice cream. Then we'd be off to the parks. Later we'd go from house to house, and the fathers would vie with each other to see who could do the nicest fireworks."
Salmon just doesn't seem right in the desert, somehow. But Colleary does still try to do the warm German potato salad that she learned from a neighbor when her family lived in Milwaukee, where German potato salad is a way of life.
She might add cowboy beans, a dish of pinto beans cooked long and slowly with chilies and other seasonings that, lore has it, got better and better as they traveled the ranges along with the cowboys who made them. And since Arizona is home of several American Indian tribes, Colleary might also include a corn salad from the Pueblos.
Although the heat is so intense around Tempe that even the circus, a perennial Fourth of July treat, moves inside to the air conditioning, if residents get out early enough they can take advantage of local orchards full of just-ripe Thompson seedless grapes. Commercial growers commonly open their orchards and let people pick as many baskets full as they can. Likely as not the grapes will be eaten plain and in quantity.
Gudrun Vaatveit Berg of Bemidji is legendary for her contributions to the holiday smorgasbords. Even though she operates without an electric mixer -- "I just have a wooden spoon and a bowl" -- Berg turns out Norwegian breads and cookies, and her famous chocolate fudge, which all over the Midwest is a sure sign that friends and relatives are gathering. When her parents went to Minnesota from Norway they changed their name to Vaatveit, preferring that to the original Gulbranson for some reason, but they kept the smorgasbord tradition.
Of course for the Fourth of July the family adds a few Americanisms like hot dogs and hamburgers for the children, so that now, when all the generations get together, Berg's lefse, a complicated Norwegian potato dish that only the older women in the family have the patience or the equipment to produce, shares the smorgasbord with the chocolate fudge.
In Minnesota the distances are long but the roads are straight and flatter than flat, so revelers think nothing of driving 100 miles to get to the party. Fortunately, smorgasbord tradition holds that you eat twice, once in early afternoon after everyone has gathered and again in the evening just before everybody sets off for home.
Out in California, where the climate is benign all year round, outdoor cooks will be using clippings from their rosemary bushes -- yes, bushes -- as brushes for basting the steaks. Loyce Lombard, executive secretary of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, says rosemary could almost be called a pest out there. She personally has some she can't get rid of.
And the fresh tomatoes will be coming in around the fourth, too, so the large Italian contingent in Gilroy will be able to enjoy a fresh tomato salad.
The other thing they have in Gilroy is garlic, which is a cash crop par excellence for the local economy as well as a seductive flavoring ingredient for cooks all over the world. In Gilroy, anyway, the marinade that gets brushed on the steaks with the rosemary brushes will be perfumed as well with garlic.
So the great me'lange celebrates the most American of holidays in true American style, which turns out, for this holiday at least, to be an overabundance of a little bit of everything. ITALIAN COLD TOMATO SALAD (4 to 6 servings) 3 ripe tomatoes, peeled and cored. 1/4 onion, minced (approximately) 1/2 celery stalk, minced 1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar 1 tablespoon olive oil Salt to taste (salt is an important ingredient in this dish) Pepper to taste 1/2 cup water French or Italian bread for dipping
Cut tomatoes vertically into eighths and put them in a large bowl. Mash them lightly with a fork to release some juice. Add onion and celery. Mix vinegar, oil, salt and pepper and pour over the tomatoes, smashing lightly again. Add water and mix well. Let the salad stand an hour or two so the juices can blend.
Each guest spoons tomatoes into an individual bowl, then uses bread to sop up remaining juices. MIDWESTERN CUCUMBER SALAD (4 servings) 1/2 cup vinegar 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt Pinch pepper 1 large cucumber, peeled and sliced Thin slices of bermuda onion rings (optional)
Mix all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate. Salad can be served alone, or with thick slices of ripe tomatoes. PUEBLO CORN SALAD (10 to 14 servings) 3 cups cooked fresh or frozen corn kernels 1/2 red sweet pepper, seeded and sliced thin 1 cup cooked lima beans 3/4 cup chopped onion 1 1/2 cups finely chopped green pepper
FOR THE DRESSING: 1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 cup vinegar
1/3 cup oil, any kind
Combine corn, red pepper, lima beans, onion and green pepper. Blend dressing ingredients and pour over salad. Let marinate for several hours. This salad is nice served in a large hollowed-out squash or pumpkin.Adapted from "Pueblo and Navajo Cookery," by Marsha Keegan, (Earth Books, 1977). GUDRUN BERG'S OATMEAL MOLASSES BREAD (Makes three 8-inch-by-4-inch loaves)
This is a rich bread that will go well with cold meats. 1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal 1 quart milk 3/4 cup molasses 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup shortening 5 teaspoons dry yeast 9 to 10 cups flour
Mix oatmeal and milk in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let cook a few minutes, stirring constantly until thickened. While still hot, add molasses, salt and shortening, then let cool to a warm room temperature. Add yeast and stir, then work in flour gradually until a firm dough is obtained. Knead on a floured surface until the dough is fairly smooth and elastic, although it will remain a bit sticky.
Let the dough rise, covered, until doubled in bulk. Shape into loaves and let rise again in three buttered 8-inch-by-4-inch loaf pans.
When dough has again nearly doubled, bake in a 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes. GARLIC MARINADE FOR STEAK (Makes about 2 cups) 3/4 cup olive oil 3/4 cup salad oil 5 cloves fresh garlic, pressed 4 sprigs fresh rosemary 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 cup lemon juice 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
Blend all ingredients one hour before using. Add steak or other meat and marinate for several hours. Adapted from "Garlic Lovers Cookbook, Volume I" (Gilroy Garlic Festival, P.O. Box 2311, Gilroy, Calif. 95021, 1979, $7.95) BIG MAMA'S BARBECUE SAUCE (Makes 3 quarts)
Mama was called big not because she was large but because she was a grandmother. Shirley Corriher adds 1/2 cup brown sugar to this recipe, and leaves out the sage. 4 to 5 large onions, chopped 2 large garlic cloves, minced 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 1/2 cup water 1 whole lemon, peel and all, coarsely chopped 1/2 tablespoon paprika 2 teaspoons cayenne 1 tablespoon dried sage 1/2 tablespoon allspice 1 teaspoon nutmeg 4 cups ketchup 4 cups vinegar 2 cups water
Cook onions and garlic in butter over very low heat until soft (about 10 minutes). Do not let brown. Add water, lemon, paprika, cayenne, sage, allspice and nutmeg and let simmer a few minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer on low heat for an hour.
Use this sauce only at the end of cooking, cautions Jimmy Bentley, for the sweetness in the ketchup will burn easily. ABERCROMBIE BRUNSWICK STEW (100 servings)
Jimmy Bentley says that his great-great-great-great-granddaddy served this stew to the Marquis de Lafayette on one of Lafayette's trips through Georgia. Bentley suspects that in those days cooks added a squirrel or two and maybe some venison.
The stew is still a must at Jimmy Bentley's annual Fourth of July picnic. Ideally, it should be cooked alongside the pork, in a huge black iron cauldron over hot coals. In any case, this recipe makes enough to serve 100 people, and requires a very large, heavy pot. 1 quart chopped onions 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, or rendered pork fat from cooked pork 1 quart well-seasoned chicken broth (add chicken boullion cubes if the stock is weak) 1 gallon cooked, boned chicken 1/2 gallon cooked (not boiled) pork, boned and chopped 1 gallon chopped tomatoes, canned or fresh 2 quarts good ketchup 2 cups best barbecue sauce Black pepper 2 gallons creamed corn 1 quart peeled, chopped potatoes Black pepper to taste Cayenne to taste
Worcestershire sauce to taste
Salt to taste
In a huge pot, cook onions in butter over medium low heat, to soften and remove raw taste. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add chicken, pork, tomatoes, ketchup, barbecue sauce and black pepper. Simmer over very low heat for several hours, being extra careful to stir very frequently because the stew is so thick it burns easily.
When within an hour or two of serving time, add corn and potatoes and cook over very low heat, making sure stew doesn't stick. Adjust seasoning with pepper, cayenne, worcestershire sauce and salt. GUDRUN BERG'S HOMECOMING FUDGE (Makes 6 dozen 1-inch pieces) 2/3 cup butter plus extra for pan 3 squares unsweetened chocolate Pinch of salt 4 cups sugar 1 1/4 cups milk 4 tablespoons white corn syrup
Melt the butter, chocolate and salt in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Add sugar, milk and corn syrup and return to a boil, stirring gently; let fudge bubble gently by itself until it reaches about 250 degrees on a candy thermometer, or until a bit dropped into a glass of very cold water makes a fairly firm ball when rolled between the fingers.
Remove fudge from the heat and let cool, covered so it won't "sugar," until it's just barely warm. Then begin beating with a wooden spoon. Beat until the fudge begins to lose its gloss (you can add nuts now if you want to), then pour quickly into a buttered 8-inch-by-8-inch or 9-inch-by-9-inch pan. MAYFIELD SWEETENED APPLES (4 to 6 servings)
These apples were a standard accompaniment for the July 4th fried chicken and baked ham in Mayfield, Ky. They are sweet and tart at the same time and, if done right, have an intriguing translucent quality. 1 cup sugar 1 cup water Pinch of salt 4 to 6 granny smith apples, peeled, cored and cut in half horizontally
Bring the sugar and water and salt to a full boil in a 10-inch heavy skillet, preferably cast iron. Add enough apples so that their edges touch each other, but in one layer. Let the apples boil for a minute or two, then lower the heat to medium. Sugar water should be at a steady bubble, but not boiling hard. Let the apples cook for a few minutes, basting tops frequently with syrup, until they begin to get soft on the bottom. Turn apples over and continue cooking until they are cooked through and translucent but not falling apart.
Let the apples cool, then serve them on a platter. AUNT BETTY'S GEORGIA YELLOW CAKE (18 small servings)
This cake is simplicity itself, but still very elegant. 1 cup (2 sticks) butter plus extra for pans, at room temperature but not melted 2 cups sugar plus extra for sprinkling on top of cake 6 eggs 2 cups flour plus extra for pans 1 teaspoon vanilla Butter and flour two 8-inch-square cake pans. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy in an electric mixer or by hand. Then add eggs one at a time, alternating with additions of flour, beating with a wooden spoon. Add vanilla.
Bake in a 300-degree oven for 45 minutes until tops are slightly brown. Sprinkle tops lightly with granulated sugar. MAYFIELD BLACKBERRY COBBLER (8 servings)
FOR THE PASTRY: 2 cups flour 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup shortening (shortening makes a flaky crust, but butter can be substituted for all or part of the shortening)
FOR THE FILLING:
1 quart washed, drained, picked-over blackberries or black raspberries
1 cup sugar
1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
Pinch of salt
A few drops of lemon juice
4 tablespoons butter
To make the pastry: mix flour with salt, then cut in shortening with forks or a pastry blender until finely mixed. Add enough cold water, a little at a time, while mixing lightly with a fork, to make a dough that doesn't fall apart. It will take about 1/4 cup.
Divide dough in half, one part slightly larger than the other, and roll out. Line a 1 1/2-quart round or oval shallow ovenproof glass casserole with the larger round of dough.
To make the filling: mix berries lightly with sugar, cornstarch, salt and lemon juice. Fill pastry-lined dish with berries. Dot berries with bits of butter.
Lay other round of pastry over top of berries and seal the edges thoroughly, pinching to seal and to decorate. Prick the top crust with a fork, reaching all the way through dough and all over the pastry.
Placing a cookie sheet under the cobbler to catch drips, bake cobbler in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake until the top is quite brown, about 40 minutes.
Serve with good-quality vanilla ice cream.