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Sunday, July 4, 2010

In Which...Rip Van Winkle Tries to Do 4th of July, and Ends Up Caviling

Since coming back to the United States, I've had a hard time throwing myself into the spirit of 4th of July celebrations. It's not because I'm less patriotic; quite the contrary (see point #1 below). So can you just put it down to my being a caviling, "been there, done that, seen the elephant" type? You decide.

Here are my three main gripes:

1) Loss of the "Independence Day" aspect of the holiday. Every year, there is some kind of poll showing that Americans have forgotten the origins of this event that led to the birth of our nation, and I am freshly aghast. In the 2010 version, just over a quarter of those polled didn't know from whom we declared our independence — and some actually speculated it was from Japan or China. Goodness, in 1776 Japan was in a period of self-imposed isolation, while China was in the midst of the Qing Dynasty — a time of territorial expansion, true, but not as far as North America. (That said, China probably supplied the tea that the colonists threw into the Boston harbor.)

2) Fireworks. Fireworks are for oohing and awing, not for finding fault. So I feel a bit mean in saying that I am almost always disappointed by fireworks in this country. I believe I've been spoiled by watching ohanabi over Tokyo's Sumida River, the largest fireworks festival in Japan. Every July, rival pyrotechnic groups compete, each trying to outdo the last. Now I'm far from an aficionado of pyrotechnics, but it doesn't take much knowledge to realize that these groups have taken fireworks to a whole new level. The colors and patterns are spectacular of course, but so is the sense of playfulness. This was the first time I'd ever seen fireworks forming shapes: not only smiley faces but also sad ones, hearts, mickey mouses, cats, planets, kanji characters and even manga characters (e.g., Doremon and Pikachu).

3) Barbecues. I was and remain relieved to be back in the land that invented the barbecue after living for so long in the UK, where people are fond of their "barbeys" but the weather prevents barbecuing from becoming a way of life. My only quibble is that I wish people in the U.S. could be more adventurous with ingredients. I noticed that New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman had a column this week exhorting Americans to expand their grilling repertoire. Amen to that. I much prefer English sausages to hot dogs, for example. As British cookery Delia Smith writes, "the humble British banger is quite transformed with a smoky, crispy barbecued skin." It's worth noting, too, that Brits excel at picnic food. Again, as Smith puts it: "The number one requirement for food in the open air is that it should have lots of gutsy flavor." Personally, I owe her a king's ransom for introducing me to the joys of making potato salad with new potatoes and no mayonnaise, just vinaigrette dressing — so much tastier and healthier than what passes for potato salad here.

Question: I'd like to hear from others who have tried repatriating: have you found traditional holidays disappointing?


Kathryn Allison said...

I will be blogging about this myself, from the point of view of a Brit in the US who prefers to hide away on 4th July... it's just too embarrassing, my dear!

However, I laughed out loud at your comment about potato salad. I have learned to make the full-fat, fully loaded, mayo variety, and only a couple of hours ago my (English) husband declared that I make the best potato salad on the planet. As for English sausages -- nope, I had some last time I went home, and have lost my taste for them. Give me a good brat sausage any day! Guess it's just what you get used to, right?

As regards more adventurous food, may I suggest the Weber's Way to Grill book. Divine stuff in there, as long as you remember to fill the propane tank. (Oops!)

ML Awanohara said...

Now it's my turn to LOL. But from what I can make out, there is no need to hang your head in shame over here -- unless, of course, you're hanging out with veterans of a certain age. They apparently are among the few who know anything about the troubled history between our two nations. According to the TPM account of the latest poll, the closer you are in age to 1776, the more likely you are to know the meaning of Independence Day.

Unless, of course, it's different in New England, which after all is the cradle of American civilization!

At the Hudson River fireworks just now, I overheard a British tourist yelling out, "We're celebrating our independence from you lot." I wanted to say to him, could you say that a little louder?

Perhaps it should be the job of you Brits to give us Americans history lessons on July 4th.

It must be an historical first: the loser keeping alive the memory of the battle because the victor has forgotten. Usually, it's the other way around: the victorious nation wants to celebrate, while the losing nation is keen to gloss over or forget.

On the potato salad issue: just to be clear, I'm not against mayonnaise per se. I should add to my love of English cream and dairy a love for home-made mayonnaise. It was my beloved Delia who convinced me: "No commercially-made mayonnaise, or short cut home-made version, can beat the thick, shining, wobbly texture of a proper mayonnaise you make for yourself. For me it's one of the true luxuries of the kitchen." (pp. 482-83 of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course). When I lived in the UK, I followed her recipe faithfully, adding a single drop of oil to the egg mixture and whisking it in thoroughly, before adding the next.

It's just that she also convinced me that the "new" potato, that small, immature potato with a thin and flaky skin, has an incomparable flavor that should not be masked. Before I went to the UK, I thought potatoes were always either baked or mashed or drowned in mayonnaise. So the new potato was something of an elephant sighting for me, for which I was more than happy to accept Delia's expert guidance...

p.s. I'd like to recommend Kathryn's blog, Marmite and Fluff. Looking forward to her 4th of July post!

awindram said...

Oh,just discovered this blog. I'm enjoying it very much.

I'll be honest I find July 4th a little awkward as an Englishman in the US, but it's entirely projection on my part rather anything anyone has ever said. Conveniently enough, it's something I blogged about myself today.

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