Food, Family and the Fourth

It's the 4th of July! My community goes all out: huge hometown parade of marching bands, meticulously made floats carrying with local kids and war veterans, fun runs, open-air concerts, barbecues and picnics, and of course, fireworks. It’s one of my favorite holidays of the year, so this suits me perfectly. Quite frankly though, I haven’t always been such a 4th-o-phile (I just made that up). For years, I enjoyed Independence Day as much as any other barbecue with friends — with the added bonus of a wink to my status as an American — a relatively small blip on my special-event radar.

Then I moved out of the country. The first 4th of July I spent living away from the United States, I was in Greece (did you think I would say France?). I was 21 and was working on a Greek cruise ship for my first job out of college. Afloat in the Mediterranean, I was the only American member of the cruise staff (ask me some day about my gig dancing the Sirtaki to the bouzouki in the Greek folkloric show and then posing in full costume with passengers while cruise photographers snapped souvenir photos; if you took a Mediterranean cruise in the early '90s, check your photo albums for a blonde wearing a festive outfit made primarily of gold coins).

So there I was in the middle of an unfamiliar ocean, far from home, feeling both very independent living overseas on my own and disconnected on a ship with no countrymen for colleagues. In the evenings, I ate dinner in the passenger dining room. The clientele was mostly European or Brazilian (Greece seemed to be a hot spot for the honeymooning elite of Sao Paolo). But out of respect for the few American passengers, the ship had placed some token red, white and blue decor in the dining room, and they even served barbecued ribs that night (the sticky-sweet spare variety, not baby back, but it’s the thought that counts). The well-meaning attempt left me melancholy.

Shortly after ordering my meal, with no notice or fanfare, I heard a pure and lovely voice singing "America the Beautiful." It was a passenger and she had just started into the lyrics, a cappella, alone in the bustling restaurant. Would anyone join in? We did! (Phew. For her, I mean.) All the Americans in the vast dining room sang together. We weren’t many, so our collective voice wasn’t loud. But it was unified and a hush fell over the rest of the diners as they listened to our musical dinnertime vigil. We lifted the candles softly lighting our tables and sang for our country, our freedom and our common identity. When we were done, the whole dining room cheered and applauded, and then went right back to eating shrimp cocktails. But we had our moment. And for me, it was the instant that transformed July 4th from elevated barbecue to affirmation of my loyalty and celebration of my heritage.

I’ve since had more moments like that one: my first 4th of July living in France, taking my four girls to watch Philippe being sworn in as a U.S. citizen, and then taking all four of them to witness his first time voting in an American election. Every 4th of July, I am reminded that I belong somewhere and that someone is counting my vote, my presence.

And all that love for a country can make one hungry. So I have some suggestions for you this 4th of July (or anytime you are grilling). My first recommendation is my Grilled Two-Cheese Burgers (pictured right) with Garlic Dressing (which is known in my circles as “magic sauce” for good reason, if I may so boldly assert). You can also try grilling classic summer sides for a new twist on barbecue — like my Grilled Potato Salad, Grilled Crunchy Coleslaw and even Grilled Tomato Salsa.

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