O Say Can We Eat

Manifest Destiny made flesh, we wolf the fruits the Continental Congress sowed.

You associate certain holidays with certain landscapes, and then with the foods of those landscapes. It’s not fair, and sometimes it’s senseless. Jesus was born without a snowman or a reindeer for miles around, but tell New England that. And now how could you ever start eating loaves and fishes at Christmas and not ham and pies?

Sometimes it’s the spirit of a place that makes the link. Spain’s taste for gore (think bullfights and the Inquisition) and spirituality (think pilgrimages and the Inquisition) lends itself to Easter and the drama that precedes it. So busloads of tourists descend on Seville every Semana Santa to watch crowds of penitents shambling down the streets flagellating themselves in the pale sunshine, their savaged backs wet with blood crimson as Spanish wine.

And Independence Day, born along the Eastern Seaboard, is at its best here in the West, thousands of miles from where eviscerated Redcoats stained the loam. Fireworks and block parties were made for wide suburban streets. Barbecue smoke smells better here, rising through dry blue skies and mixing with the sharp whiff of pine. Tough luck, humid Lexington and Concord. That beef sizzling on the grill is Western–not that meat’s not murder.

So it’s a combination of geography and personality that makes the West perfect for July 4. This is the territory, slick with oil, seeded with gold and silver, redolent with plum and orange and almond and apple orchards, where the Founding Fathers’ wildest dreams came true: a world of giants on the far side of prairies and peaks and dunes that Thomas Jefferson would never see. Manifest Destiny made flesh, we wolf the fruits the Continental Congress sowed till we are dizzy, staggering around their land of dreams with ice-cream headaches.

July Fourth always felt like my personal property. It glorified summer, the brilliant season, the season of birthdays–mine and my friends’. Where I grew up in Southern California, we did not have four seasons, only variations in the temperature of our relentless sunshine. In a warm, coatless life, the Fourth crowned the year. The long, long day tasted of something burned.

Cold-weather holidays–Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s–are like glowing pegs by which to haul oneself through the dark hungry months. By comparison, hot-weather holidays are few. We need them less to keep our thoughts from suicide. In older cultures, too, fall and winter are packed with festivals like raisins in a bun: All Souls’ Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Epiphany, Saturnalia, Feast of the Ass, the Lunar New Year, Lupercalia, Candlemas. The summer solstice stands out solitary in its season, a short hot night for lighting fires outside while gorging on what is so obvious and bright and simple that it needs no fancy doctoring, no cloves and mace to fool the tongue. In France they light the fires on St. John’s Eve, less than a week after the solstice, erecting tall pyramids with logs, a task that takes whole teams to do, then torching them. You might say all these pyrotechnics soothe some primal ache deep in the European soul, some need to celebrate the sun. In that case how convenient that the Continental Congress declared independence in early July and not in the depths of, say, February. Celebrating the Fourth was a bigger deal in this country’s first hundred years than we can fathom. America was adolescent, growing, disinclined to see its treatment of the natives as a crime. In those days, Independence Day threw cities into patriotic frenzies. Parades thundered down the streets, loud with marching bands, the clatter of caparisoned horses, the solemn left-right-left of uniformed columns of veterans. Mayors made speeches. Straw hats sailed into the air. And the barbecues went on and on.Cooking meat outdoors on grids over flames had been an American tradition since the 16th century, when Spaniards saw indigenous people in the West Indies doing it. The Spaniards called it barbacoa, after a Taino word for the green wooden sticks on which the meat lay. In the Colonies and then in the new States it was a treasured way of making tough meat more toothsome; at community celebrations like the ones on July 4, huge crowds reveled for hours while whole animals cooked slowly, their smoke-and-fat perfume narcotic in the summer air.

Come night, fireworks blazed through a darkness as yet undiluted by traffic lights and neon signs. Being American, back then, meant doing things nobody else had ever done and, often, living somewhere no one else had ever lived.

The Fourths I once knew had no parades and no whole animals but had become more intimate, a drawing-in of friends and families who exulted in the splendor of their yards and swimming pools and patios, the ranch-style houses through which men wearing Kiss the Cook aprons ran to fetch more matches or an extra fork. On countless lawns, all day, and at the beach and parks across the town, a thousand parties raged. The ice-cream makers churned, reminding everyone anew what a completely boring task this was, how much it hurt the arms, but my friend Marji said churning burned calories. And who could argue with the moral of the holiday? Crown thy good in brotherhood? Okay! For spacious skies? Awright!

After dark, in the streets and driveways, fireworks flared. Each household had a box of them, a sampler revealing personal tastes–fountains or Roman candles or those cardboard log cabins that simply burned. So celebrations that had been private all day went public, exhibitionistic, as we all saw and heard each other’s colored sparks and whorls and shouted up and down the street how beautiful they were.Then Berkeley ruined everything. It was shocking enough to find, my first summer here, how cold July can be. How fog can swallow everything about fireworks except the boom. How barbecues can turn into teeth-chattering disasters at which icy lemonade seems like a cruel joke and children beg to be taken to nice warm restaurants. Some summer days around here do burn brightly, sometimes a string of days. Teasers. Summer is better here than winter, sure, but summer here is not how summer is supposed to be. Each cold July I hear people congratulating themselves as they zip up their fleece vests, announcing how much they hate heat.

Since Berkeley is a strange island carved out of the West, not really part of it, this is not Independence Day country. Growing up here, Tuffy learned that on the Fourth it was okay to celebrate revolt, the vanquishing of overlords. But pity the poor fool who sang a patriotic song or hung a flag. God shed His grace on thee? With brotherhood? Amerikkka was, after all, Amerikkka. When evening came every Fourth of July at Tilden Park, hippies and radicals and Hare Krishnas raised their slices of nut loaf and watched fog pour through the Golden Gate.

These days the shop windows in downtown Berkeley are bravely stocked with stars-and-stripes placemats and paper Uncle Sam hats. But this is a town too diverse to embrace any holiday: too cynical, too critical, too sensitive, too self-conscious. And the rest of the country, in the last few decades, has grown cynical and diverse too. It’s as if Berkeley has been sitting smugly on its heels this whole time waiting for everyplace else to catch up. No holiday is still the simple outpouring of faith it once was. I expect Timothy McVeigh adored the Fourth, back in the day.

In ancient Rome, new holidays were made for every new war won, every new deity who came to town. Eventually half the days in every month were holidays. And while the Romans liked having so many reasons to ditch work, their holidays became so numerous they lost all meaning. Then, partly because so little work was getting done, the empire fell.

While squirting ketchup into hotdog buns, how many of us this year are going to think about Washington’s strategy at Valley Forge? When fireworks flash over our beer-addled heads, will we remember that these pyrotechnics are meant to evoke not the Revolution but the War of 1812–its bombs, as the song says, bursting in air? (During the Revolution, death came by way of musketballs and bayonets.) Will we muse, stoking the coals, about how during the summer of 1775, Britain’s King George III (as in The Madness of….) officially announced that his American subjects were “in open and avowed rebellion”? Then on July 2, 1776, a resolution for independence was adopted by a majority of the colonies. All of July 3 was spent revising this document and most of the next day too. When it was done, late in the afternoon of July 4, bells rang throughout Philadelphia. That city’s Evening Post carried the news on July 6, scooping the world. The war against Britain would rage until 1781, but it is this day near the start of the war rather than any at its end that gets the glory.

Nevertheless, so much fruit punch has flowed under the bridge by now that, like the ancient Romans, we’re thinking Long weekend, not We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal.

Besides, when the person currently in the White House was not actually elected president and pooh-poohs global warming, it feels easier, this Fourth, to focus on its long-weekend aspect and not its patriotic one. Diehards can go online and order, from cornercrafters.com for instance, an eighty-dollar red, white, and blue bottle-rocket windsock or a hand-stuffed Yankee Doodle Dandy angel in a tricolor gauze dress. The rest of us can eat.As for the menu–well, it’s a free country. No one’s going to haul you to the gulag for serving kava-kava instead of lemonade, haggis instead of hotdogs. But only a Benedict Arnold would argue that it’s best to eat anywhere but outdoors. For a bit of West Coast culinary heritage, I’ve been poring through a July 1954 Sunset magazine that I filched a few months ago from my neighbor’s trash. Its pages, splashed with pictures of short ribs, gazebos, and Jell-O salads, hail the birthday of a nation whose latest wars were so recently won that the baggy-trousered men wielding trowels and barbecue forks in these photographs probably fought at Corregidor and Inchon. The women wear cinch-waisted frocks and high heels while posing in front of asbestos siding, serving summer treats for all they’re worth. And the tots seen here gulping lemonade were products of those last two wars as well, some of them destined to die in the next one, or burn flags.

A sauce for the meat? Sunset suggests:

2/3 cup tomato ketchup

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 T. mustard

Mix in a bowl and spread on flesh before broiling. Spoon excess sauce over meat periodically throughout the cooking process.

Pretty horrible, huh? But as Sunset reminds us, we Westerners are always on the lookout for a “flavor surprise.” Obligingly, the magazine offers a clever alternative, presciently well-suited to the town that brought you Peet’s:

1 lb. ground beef

1 egg

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 medium-sized onion, chopped finely

1 8-oz. can tomato sauce

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

1/8 tsp. garlic salt

1/2 cup ketchup

1/2 cup cold coffee

Mix together thoroughly the beef, egg, oats, onion, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, and garlic salt; shape into eight patties. Place on grill and start cooking. Stir ketchup into coffee, then pour over lightly browned patties. Turn patties and glaze on other side.

Yeah, yeah, potato and macaroni salads. Why not give your guests a salad to really think about, as brightly colored as the West itself with a tang that makes fireworks in the mouth?

4 oranges, sliced thinly

4 tomatoes, sliced thinly

2 green peppers, cut into slivers

3 green onions, sliced

4 celery stalks, sliced diagonally

Toss ingredients with vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. Chill in refrigerator to let flavors settle until serving.

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