Today, the 4th of July, is American Independence Day and there’s nothing that says red, white and blue better than a barbecue. From my childhood home in East Lansing, Michigan to my sister’s place in Fort Wayne, Indiana to Chicago and Washington, D.C., I have spent every 4th of July in the United States at or hosting a barbecue. My mother has the world’s best hamburger recipe and my father is the master griller – a delectable combination for celebrating America’s birthday. My “nephew” Iggy, a Schnauzer-Jack Russell Terrrier, even gets his own freshly grilled mini burger.
In Brussels, I try to simulate the experience on my fourth-floor terrace with no grill, no dog and a group of Europeans. They love it but always ask me, “why do Americans barbecue on the 4th of July?” Good question! After doing some research, I discovered that it is a centuries-old tradition evolving from Paul Revere to Weber grill.
“In the early history of our republic, Independence Day was often the biggest community festival of the year,” wrote food historian Adrian Miller. “Barbecue, which developed as a new, fusion cuisine well-suited for festive occasions by the late 1600s and early 1700s, became the ultimate party food during the period when Fourth of July celebrations gained civic and social momentum. The two have been linked up ever since.”
Barbecue well preceded the Boston Tea Party but it wasn’t fit for tea. It involved cooking a whole animal carcass skewered with wooden poles over a wood-burning pit. The carcass was rotated over the pit and basted with a vinegar-red pepper sauce. Cows, pigs, sheep and even opossum were fair game. By the late 1700s, barbecue was deemed a cooking process (verb), a descriptor for cooked meat (adjective) and a form of entertainment (noun). All three underpinned social life in the American South, especially in Virginia.
Massive outdoor barbecues were free to all attendees because the meat was donated by wealthy members of the community and sourced from local farmers. After feasting, there was toasting – 13 times in honor of the first 13 U.S. colonies (now states).
Independence Day celebrations also nodded to these colonies with a military procession, reading of the Declaration of Independence (the whole thing!), speeches by local politicians, toasts to dignitaries, fireworks, fanfare and a meal for the masses (usually barbecue). But these festivities downsized significantly in the 20th century due to higher meat prices, labor wages and party logistics. While the events still had huge turnouts, sometimes in the thousands, they weren’t community-wide like the century before, nor necessarily free.
Barbecue itself also changed in the 20th century. The firepit was “cast” aside in favor of brick-lined pits and smaller cuts of meat (nowadays burgers and hot dogs) that were more sanitary and manageable. By the 1920s, barbecue was popular in restaurants and backyards, paving the way for kettle grills (hello, Weber) in the 1950s.
Celebrating the 4th of July began the year after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. But this date became more widely observed by Americans following the War of 1812. In fact, it wasn’t until 1870 that Congress passed a law to make Independence Day a federal holiday.
This date marks the anniversary of when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Thomas Jefferson wrote it, calling for “unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (Ironically, these words did not apply to all at the time.) The Congress, made up of delegates from the 13 colonies, unanimously approved the declaration from Great Britain.
At the first July 4th celebration in Philadelphia in 1777, Americans fired a cannon 13 times and set off 13 fireworks in honor of the 13 colonies. The firework tradition stood the test of time and thank goodness, cannon-firing did not.
In my own family, we had a tradition of running around the backyard with sparklers – hand-held, long metal “matches” that emitted sparks. My sister and I would draw smoky patterns in the air with them. Just like the right to bear firearms, Americans have the right to bear fireworks. States determine what they sell. Most offer the “works” but Ohio, Vermont and Illinois only allow the purchase of sparklers and Massachusetts does not permit the sale of fireworks at all. Growing up, Michigan didn’t sell serious fireworks to non-professionals so people would drive to the neighboring state of Indiana to buy them. I wonder what our Founding Fathers would have said about that!
One of my favorite Michigan memories for Independence Day was going to watch the firework show in the capitol of Lansing after supposedly being grounded by my mother for a little mishap with my high school friend Kris the night beforehand. Us teenagers went with my parents up north for the weekend to a resort called Sugarloaf (think snow on top of a rectangular mountain). That Saturday night after dinner, Kris and I peeled away from my parents to explore the property. We stumbled upon a golf cart with a key in it that belonged to the maintenance department. It was filled with a mound of grass clippings. Kris and I looked at each other.
“This would be an easier way to see the resort,” I said with a wink in the dark.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Kris said, eyeing the key in the ignition.
I jumped into the driver’s seat and backed the cart out with a jolt, sending grass bits flying. While we were cruising around in our not-hot wheels, we met some cute, teenage boys who drag-raced us as a joke in their car. I put the golf cart pedal to the metal, losing both the race and most of the grass clippings.
We had a good laugh, and the boys took us to a nearby lake for a bonfire with some of their friends. Hours later in this pre-cell phone era, we returned to the resort. Kris and I drove the golf cart back to where we found it, leaving a trail of grass in our wake. Just as we were saying goodnight to our cute, new friends, an elderly man in a van pulled up:
“Are you Kristin and Angela?” he asked. Alarmed, we sheepishly said yes.
“I’m with resort security,” he said. “Get in. I’ll drive you home. Your parents contacted us because they didn’t know where you were.”
Normally, we wouldn’t get into a van with a stranger, but we knew that mom and dad Dansby were behind the “arrest.” Of course, we were humiliated in front of the guys, who were trying to contain their laughter. So, like two dogs going to the pound, we were hauled off with the van door slamming shut.
When we walked into the hotel room, my mother in her black nightgown flew like a crow towards us, panicked.
“Where were you two?!” she exclaimed angrily. “We have been so worried! Angela, you’re grounded until further notice.”
Gulp. The 4th of July was the next night and we were driving home in time for fireworks. How could I be grounded? It was America’s birthday! I had to see the fireworks with Kris and our friends!
We apologized profusely and groveled the next day, praying the whole four-hour ride home in the car that I would be absolved of my sins to watch the fireworks and hang out with my partner-in-crime Kris.
Perhaps because my parents knew we were genuinely sorry for our disappearing act (they never knew about the golf cart) or because they wanted the evening to themselves, I got off the hook. I moved from the “firepit” to fireworks and toasted 13 times to my own Declaration of Independence.
Cheers, Americans! May the fourth be with you today and always.