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July 4 Barbecue From America's Melting Pot

Foley Square, Lower Manhattan. Circa 1950. My grandfather had dragged his young sons all the way downtown for a simple exercise: to extol the glories of his adopted country. He lined the boys up in front of the courthouse and pointed to its inscription: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government."

Independence Day is the biggest grilling day of the year ... and burgers are the most popular meal. But Giddau — my grandfather — didn't know a hamburger from a hot dog. ... Instead, he would hunch over an ice-cold bowl of marinated lamb and thread the chunks onto 2-foot skewers ...

Then he turned to them, nodding solemnly. "United States of America," he proclaimed. And then they went home.

My grandfather came to the U.S. from Syria in 1914, and like most immigrants, he became a proud American. He learned English. He watched the news. He voted. He saluted the flag. And on the Fourth of July, he did what every good American does: He fired up the grill.

Independence Day is the biggest grilling day of the year, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, and burgers are the most popular meal. But Giddau — my grandfather — didn't know a hamburger from a hot dog, North Carolina pulled pig from Kansas City tomato-mopped ribs. Instead, he would hunch over an ice-cold bowl of marinated lamb and thread the chunks onto 2-foot skewers, punctuating each piece with bright green peppers, red cherry tomatoes and satiny onions. Or he would massage onion, parsley and mint into ground lamb for succulent kebab — which my brothers and I ate on toasted buns with ketchup and called "lambburgers." Ditto for my Indian mother-in-law, whose Weber has never seen a T-bone. Instead, she rubs thick salmon fillets with tandoori masala, turning the pink flesh a deep, dark red. If she's feeling ambitious, she wedges ears of corn into the embers, just like a Mumbai street vendor.

On the Fourth of July, America's melting pot becomes a red-hot grill. Korean-Americans might lay down salty-sweet kalbi, beef short ribs seasoned with sesame and eaten in a lettuce wrap. Japanese families might serve up yakitori, dainty skewered bits of chicken liver, pork belly, shishito peppers, shiitake mushrooms or prawns with the head on. And a mixed grill from Latin America could be Argentine steak with bacon and eggs, Uruguayan Pamplona — chicken breast stuffed with ham, cheese and peppers — or sensual Peruvian chicken marinated in cumin, garlic and yellow chilies. Look over the fence to your Australian neighbors and you'll see "shrimp on the barbie," while the Greek family on the other side might be charring oregano-dusted octopus.

All over the world, people have been grilling since they discovered fire, and when they came to the United States they brought their signature flavors with them. Many of these flavors have, of course, made their way into American barbecue traditions.

Barbecue expert Steven Raichlen provides examples of what immigrants have brought to the grill: In California, Mexican ranch hands contributed Santa Maria Tri Tip, sirloin steak served with salsa and pinquito beans, the small pink sister of Boston baked beans; in the Midwest, an Austrian immigrant introduced bratwurst, an often beer-poached sausage that's a staple of Wisconsin cookouts and any self-respecting college football tailgate; and in the Texas Hill Country, the beef links known as Texas Hot Guts came from the Czechs who settled the region.

"When you go to Italy or Argentina, they are so happy and content with their local grilling tradition that they would never dream of augmenting it," Raichlen says. "But we have this wonderful gift, because we're a nation of immigrants, to embrace foods and make them our own."

And sometimes the embrace is more like a bear hug. Giddau's lambburgers are still a favorite on my family's grill, but these days, so is Greek-style chicken marinated in oregano and lemon, spicy Spanish chorizo and clams and big, fat German wurst. It's true that justice is one of our most treasured values. But I think even Giddau would agree that nothing says "United States of America" like a grill that pops and sizzles with flavors from around the world.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kayal