The Fourth of July is a special day for the United States, the one on which Americans celebrate Independence. ‘Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government,’ wrote Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in the Declaration of Independence. But, though July 4 1776 is celebrated as America’s official breakaway from British rule, the full process took much longer than just one day. The original resolution calling for the Continental Congress to declare the United States free to govern themselves was first introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7 1776 and, three days later Thomas Jefferson was appointed to chair a committee to draw up an appropriate document for the occasion. The Declaration of Independence, as it became known was actually approved on July 2 1776 and adopted by Congress two days later, though New York delegates only voted on the resolution on July 9, and most of the 56 signatures were added in the August (with a certain Thomas McKean eventually signing the document only in 1781).
Be that as it may, Americans chose the fourth of July as the day on which the United States established itself as a nation from the outset (as early as July 18 1777, the Virginia Gazette wrote, ‘Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen and Amen’) and that’s the ways things have stayed ever since.
What better excuse to have a good time than the celebration of a right as precious as freedom! Thus, alongside the waving of flags, the ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which granted citizens the right to participate in government, colorful parades and large-scale firework displays, food also plays a fundamental role. And since a holiday on the fourth of July of all days is also a perfect excuse to herald in the summer, its consumption develops round tasty traditional dishes at barbecues or picnics or outdoor family gatherings. All-American grilled or barbecued steaks, hamburgers, ribs, frankfurters and bratwurst figure in the main courses (US Department of Agriculture figures show that less than 10% of beef and pork eaten in the country is imported) with a mindboggling variety of glazes, sauces, marinades and dips. Good old apple pie apart (grandma’s or mom’s, it makes no odds), puddings feature seasonal fruits such as cranberries and blueberries. Hence patriotic concoctions such as red, white and blueberry cheesecake pie, red, white and blueberry pound cake, red, white and blue shortcake stars, red, white and blue jello salad, red, white and blue chocolate cupcakes and American blueberry squares. Then, especially in the south, comes another symbol of the American summer – the watermelon. Hence watermelon cake, watermelon ice, watermelon fire and ice salsa, watermelon basket, watermelon carvings. You name it!
And to drink? Beer, of course. According to national Beer Institute figures, July 4 is easily the most popular holiday for beer swigging, accounting for 7.5% of total annual consumption. And since Americans guzzled as many as 198 million barrels of domestic beer last year as opposed to 20 million from abroad, the Beer Institute is seeking to consolidate the trend this time round by painting cans and casks red, white and blue. ‘Celebrate America’s holidays the way the men who started them did’ is its patriotic slogan.
Yet, though Fourth of July food and drink will be prevalently home-produced, some of the other trappings of the holiday will not. According to the US Census Bureau, most of the fireworks, for example, are imported from China, while the stars-and-stripes banners for holiday parades are manufactured in Taiwan.
So is the national secular holiday par excellence assuming an international aura? Are Americans aware of the traditions behind it? In the United States, 30 towns are named Liberty, 11 Independence and five Freedom. In such places it would be hard to forget! Otherwise, though, one has the impression that the holiday’s only real link with the Declaration of Independence is that it fuels a widespread desire to partake of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website