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Just As American As Chorizo


Now we continue our discussion on the history and traditions of Independence Day. Sure, there are parades and John Philip Sousa marches, but for many Americans, the grilled hot dogs and hamburgers are as important as the fireworks. Historian Kenneth C. Davis told us earlier that Fourth of July celebrations began in 1776, but the foods we now consider traditional didn't arrive until much later.

So how did the Jell-O fruit salad and grilled dog become Independence Day staples? To answer that question, we have Jessica B. Harris here. She's a culinary historian and author of "Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim" and "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." Jessica, welcome.

JESSICA B. HARRIS: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be welcomed.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a step back here first and talk about the place that food holds in our holidays. How important is any particular kind of food? In other words, wouldn't Thanksgiving be the same celebration even if we had fish instead of turkey?

HARRIS: I doubt it because things become so intimately intertwined with the holiday themselves. I can't imagine a Thanksgiving with fish, although, theoretically, there was probably cod and maybe not turkey at the original banquet, if such a thing existed.

HEADLEE: So in a way, barbecue has become inextricably connected to Fourth of July. And I want to be clear here that I'm using barbecue as opposed to grilling, 'cause they're two very different things.

HARRIS: Well, I think barbecue becomes so much more complex, because barbecue can be a noun, a verb or an adjective.

You're meaning the technique of cooking. And I think that that is a very big part of the Fourth of July, but only in certain parts of the country. I think in other parts of the country, it is grilling and it may just be a cookout. It may not necessarily be barbecuing.

HEADLEE: So many people in different regions barbecue in some sense, but I imagine it's very different in Louisiana than it is in New England, than it is in Texas, than it is in Seattle.

HARRIS: Well, absolutely, and in fact, much of Louisiana may not really be barbecue zone. It's more about cochon de lait. It's more about crawfish boils. It's more about shrimp and the ocean in the South.

But there's a real barbecue belt, and I always tend to tell people that you have to kind of be to the barbecue born. And in this day and age, barbecue is so testosterone infused, I take a dainty, delicate lady step away and let other folks kind of do the theories of barbecue.

HEADLEE: But I am absolutely titillated by the idea of a barbecue belt. What states are included in that region?

HARRIS: Well, I think you've got North Carolina, South Carolina. You come across, you've got parts of Georgia. You go into, certainly, northern Louisiana, as far as east Texas and then other parts of Texas, but then you're meeting another kind of barbecue tradition, which would be the Mexican barbecue tradition, where you get cabrito and things like that. So you've got all of that general area, and then you've got the places where it migrated.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk a little bit about migration then, because much of your research focuses on the slave trade, how Caribbean and African traditions became part of what we think of as very traditional American food. Can you tell us a little bit about what were originally African or Caribbean dishes that have now become as American as apple pie?

HARRIS: Before you even get to dishes, look at foodstuffs. Black-eyed peas, for many people, it wouldn't be summer without some wonderful fresh black-eyed peas. You get the dish called Texas caviar, which is simply marinated black-eyed peas. The black-eyed pea is indigenous to Africa. Watermelon, we're in prime watermelon eating and seed-spitting contest season now, and watermelon is indigenous to Africa.

HEADLEE: Wait a second, Jessica. Before you move on, are you a seed-spitter?

>>HARRIS I've been known to spit a seed or two, yeah.

HEADLEE: What's your record distance?

HARRIS: Now I haven't really done it under challenge.


HARRIS: So it's just been more recreational seed-spitting.

HEADLEE: So clearly, I know what you and I need to do the next time I actually see you.

HARRIS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, there's a contest in the offing.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the history of American food, why we eat what we eat, with culinary historian and writer Jessica B. Harris. Tell me about that phrase, American as apple pie. Is that inaccurate?

HARRIS: I would suggest, you know, sort of respectfully, that it may not be accurate. I think apple pie probably is more European. But if you look, it does go back. It's deeply embedded in American history. 1796, Amelia Simmons, the American cookbook - first American cookbook, there're two Apple pie recipes and with hints that might actually work for us today. One is flavored with rose water, which is delicious sounding, and the other with wine.

HEADLEE: What about more recent - what we think of as more recent, integration? Have there been some new sort of culinary dishes that have come in and become part of our staple diet?

HARRIS: Well, there're all sorts of kind of wonderful fusion foods. I was speaking with somebody yesterday or the day before about yaka mein.

It's noodles in a very highly spiced beef broth that are traditionally eaten by African-Americans. And the story is maybe not even so much patterns of immigration, but patterns of immigration intersecting with history, African-American war vets returning from Asia.

HEADLEE: And wanting to taste, still, some of the things that they loved when they were overseas.

HARRIS: With a little of the spicy bite of the African-American taste palette, if you will. We equally get things like salsa. Salsa is certainly something that has come into our culinary lexicon from people who have come into the country from that whole south-of-the-border part of the hemisphere, things like, arguably, hamburgers, from Hamburg.

HEADLEE: As a variation of what?

HARRIS: Well, hamburger's a variation of a chopped meat patty served elsewhere in the world...

HEADLEE: In Germany, yeah.

HARRIS: ...But that becomes our hamburger. You know, the wurst that becomes our frankfurter. All of these things, you know, there's nothing new under the sun, and it's always in a constant state of evolution.

HEADLEE: Well, what is it - what kind of foods do we think of as ethnic that are actually just American inventions?

HARRIS: Well, certainly some Asian dishes. Arguably, chow mein, chop suey. When you start to think of all of the things that we're shoving into pita bread or shoving into flatbreads of one sort or another nowadays, certainly that is an old tradition informing a new way of the eating, a new way of dealing with ingredients, a new way of creating a sandwich.

HEADLEE: Which makes it sound as though there isn't truly an American cuisine.

HARRIS: Everybody is from somewhere. No matter how one got here, one is usually from somewhere else. And often, on top of that, being from somewhere else, mixed with other peoples. We are a mixed lot and the mixing shows up on our plates.

HEADLEE: And to a certain extent, that gives us a lot of liberty, right?

HARRIS: Absolutely.

HEADLEE: I mean, for this Independence Day...

HARRIS: Not even...

HEADLEE: ...We have the freedom to do whatever we want.

HARRIS: Exactly. I mean, you can put on that barbecue grill anything you want to. I mean, let's not forget there's the big Nathan's hot dog-eating competition.

HEADLEE: Oh, God, let's forget that.

HARRIS: Yeah, well, we can forget it, but it's a celebration of our hot dog.

HEADLEE: It is true.

HARRIS: And it does go back to 1916.

HEADLEE: Yeah, but I empathetically get a stomach ache from watching.

HARRIS: Oh, no, no, no. I don't - I can't watch it. But I'm fascinated by the fact that this hot dog has become so much a part of that particular aspect of the celebration of the Fourth. In 1824, newspaper accounts talk about festivities in Central Park on the Fourth that served baked beans, roast pig, punch, custards and clam soup.

HEADLEE: In Central Park in New York, 'cause that sounds like a Southern...

HARRIS: In what would become Central Park in New York.

HEADLEE: Wow. All right, so then, if we're free to do whatever we want, give me some advice. If my cooking skill pretty much limits me to throwing a few dogs on the grill, what kind of things can I do to have a truly American Independence Day celebration?

HARRIS: Well, you can, you know, sort of tart up or spice up your hot dogs, make a sort of pseudo-Chicago dog. You may not be able to get the right kind of roll, but you can definitely put some sport peppers - those are those little, teeny-tiny, incendiary, vinegar preserved chilis - on the top of it with some onions and make a Chicago-ish dog, or you could do a New England dog. You could do around the country with dogs.

HEADLEE: For your cookout, what do you serve on the Fourth of July?

HARRIS: Oh, I'm going to give you a very rude answer here. I usually serve myself into somebody else's celebration.

HEADLEE: That's not rude, that's just smart.

HARRIS: Well, yeah, I'm blessed with having a set of very culinary friends, so that I'm never at, you know, sort of a shortage of wonderful places to go. I mean, between steaks and grilled chicken and grilled corn, which I do truly adore, to grilled sweet potatoes, onions, mushrooms - throw it on the grill.

HEADLEE: All right, well, eat in good health and happy Fourth of July.

HARRIS: And the same to you.

HEADLEE: Jessica B. Harris is a writer and culinary historian. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: Thank you. Happy Fourth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.