Traditional Fare for the Fourth
THE Glorious Fourth for many families is a day to raise the flag and pack for a picnic, even if it's no farther than the pool or the backyard.
Parades and special outings are a major part of the all-American celebration, but it's also a time for special dishes. This means sharing food with family and relatives at a baked bean church supper, a grange hall chicken dinner, or a community picnic. Then in the evening everyone watches the town's display of fireworks.
"In my part of the country we always have a barbecue on the Fourth," says Marion Cunningham, nationally syndicated columnist, author of the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook," and a native Californian.
"It may be chicken or hot dogs or hamburgers or barbecue pork, but it's definitely a day for a cookout," continues Ms. Cunningham in a phone interview. "Corn on the cob is always a must because here in the sunny California days of early July we enjoy our first sweet corn as well as our first vine-ripe, homegrown tomatoes. They all make a perfect holiday dinner for the fourth.
"The classic dessert is a fresh strawberry shortcake made with rich, dark-red berry slices, layered between warm cream biscuit dough and topped with mounds of foamy whipped cream," she adds. "I'm sure it's the favorite dessert all over America during this season."
It was John Adams who urged that Independence Day be celebrated with parades and fireworks, but it was the glories of nature - and Mrs. Adams - that made fresh salmon, new potatoes, and the first garden peas a food tradition.
Visitors to the New York World's Fair in 1964 and 1965 at the Festival of Gas Restaurant were able to enjoy the same dishes Abigail and John Adams served at their Massachusetts home on the first Independence Day, July 4, 1776.
Mrs. Adams had first served the meal in 1773, so the story goes. It was so memorable that she decided the "American" quality of it made it the perfect meal for an Independence Day dinner. It has since become a tradition in many New England homes.
The specific menu consisted of Green Turtle Soup and New England Salmon with Egg Sauce, with Apple Pan Dowdy for dessert. Served with the salmon were the first new potatoes and early peas. Salmon was available along the Atlantic Coast in late June. (Before pollution, some of the great salmon catches were from rivers in the East, so this was a seasonal dinner at that time.)
Chef Jasper White of Boston's Jasper's restaurant says the Yankee tradition is to have "boiled" salmon, which is actually steamed or poached, with the fresh peas for the Fourth of July.
"It's a fine tradition, but actually it's not really the right meal for most of us," says Mr. White. "Salmon is not as plentiful as it used to be, and since the Fourth is usually a real hot day, the hot salmon with egg sauce isn't very appealing."
He suggests a cold salmon salad instead. "I sometimes purposely cook salmon ahead with the idea of making a salad for the holiday. By adding fresh peas and new red potatoes it's ideal for a cold buffet.
"Or you can serve cold salmon and add several other salads of different kinds, such as potato salad or vegetable or green salads, depending on how big your family is on the Fourth.
"As much as we talk about having salmon and peas on the Fourth and making the salmon in terrines or molds or in elaborate recipes, most people end up at home doing what they've always done, which is having a simple, easy cookout. My family and friends usually cook hot dogs, hamburgers, bluefish, and steamers," he admits. "In my restaurant I use the salmon and peas combination at different times, in late spring and summer when the season for both these foods is at its height."
White, who has made a study of New England food from the historical and cultural angle as well as from his kitchen explorations, says contemporary New England foods are rich and exciting. "Food in New England today is not the the provincial, stodgy, stereotype formerly associated with northeastern United States," he says.
Another New Englander, Sarah Leah Chase, says she shelled so many fresh green peas and poached so much salmon when she was running her catering service on Nantucket Island that she doesn't think she ever wants to have the same dish again on the July 4 holiday.
"It is a New England traditional dish, but I like to have something a little different," says Ms. Chase, author of several cookbooks, the latest co-authored with her brother, Jonathan Chase, titled "Saltwater Seasonings, Good Food From Coastal Maine."
"I like the red-white-and-blue potato salad from our friend Andre Strong, who is a former craft-gallery owner, now an avid Maine potato farmer," she says. "Perfect for the Fourth of July.
"Andre loves experimenting with both old Maine-potato varieties and esoteric strains his mother sends from France. He makes his red-white-and-blue potato salad on America's Fourth of July, as well as France's Bastille Day on July 14th," she says.
"I also like my Crunchy Pea Salad with honey-roasted cashews and an oriental-inspired dressing for a different way to celebrate the first fresh peas of the year."
In today's melting pot of culinary traditions, colonial roots sometimes take second place to more exciting or exotic ethnic dishes.
But the Fourth of July is a time to consider the simple fare of earlier Americans. A clambake or lobster bake on the beach is wonderful if you live near the shore and if seafood is abundant.
Other traditional dishes can be easier and still be as American as apple pie. A must is homemade potato salad. It can be German potato salad, or French-style potato salad, or mother's potato salad. Make it with homemade mayonnaise or a favorite kind out of the jar. Heap the salad on fresh lettuce and surround with hard boiled eggs, slices of fresh tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Fried chicken or barbecued chicken are also ideal for the Fourth and fit beautifully with an assortment of salads and fresh garden vegetables. Don't forget the cornbread, some spicy dill pickles, the watermelon for dessert, and gallons of iced tea with sprigs of mint or homemade lemonade.