Next week is the fourth of July.
As I’ve noted many times before in this blog- British people (and foreigners in general) never quite understand Americans as well as they think they do. They’ve seen the TV shows and the movies. But if you’ve never actually been to a fourth of July celebration in the USA, you’ll never really understand America or Americans.
I’ve blogged about other American traditions and Holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Halloween, and about how Yanks celebrate Christmas differently than Brits. But the fourth of July is something different, something special. It’s of course the most American of holidays, in that it’s meant to celebrate America itself. But unlike Thanksgiving, fourth of July is strangely unsentimental. It’s when we celebrate our country not by necessarily paying tribute to it, or waxing poetic about it, but rather just by being the most American we can be. It’s hard to explain. It’s just the day where your Americanness finds its purest expression- in whirl of grilled meat, cheap beer and fireworks.
Here’s my attempt to answer any questions you might have about the fourth of July:
Foreigners’ frequently asked questions about the 4th of July:
What’s it all about?
Officially, it’s called Independence Day, but most Americans just refer to it as”the 4th of July.” It’s the day where we celebrate the Declaration of Independence. On July 4th, 1776 America’s founding fathers formally signed a document declaring their independence from Great Britain. We consider it our country’s birthday. You might hear someone shouting out: “Happy Fucking Birthday America,” followed by a loud explosion, and you might think of it as drunken nonsense. But a true American might respond with their own shout of “God bless the U-S of fucking America!” There’s a lot of cursing on the fourth of July and we see it all as defiantly political- expressions of our personal, as well as national independence.
As a British person, should I keep a low profile on 4th of July around Americans?
Not at all- the thing is… the secret I’d like to share with you is… the fourth of July isn’t about rejecting or hating Britain or the British. It’s about hating and rejecting British royalty. If you read the Declaration of Independence, you’d probably be surprised at just how angry the tone of it is- and the target of all its venom is not the good people of the United Kingdom, but solely their King, George III:
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly…
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone…
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…
He is, like, totally a fucking dickweed and a fucktard…
Well that last one may be just a paraphrase, but the anger is real, and palpable. Americans aren’t celebrating independence from another country- but rather independence from all notions of monarchy. It has been ingrained in the American DNA from the very start to dislike old world-style hierarchy and class structures, and the King, ruling by birthright and decree rather than by earned consensus, was seen as the epitome of this most European of evils. So, as long as you don’t put on royal airs, you can help yourself to a piece of barbecued meat. Which leads us to our next question…
So what does one do on the fourth of July?
We have outdoor barbecue parties accompanied by fireworks. There are more details below, so you know what to expect and which food or drinks to bring along. But at its core, the fourth is a very simple and unpretentious celebration for friends and family: Eat meat, drink beer, blow shit up.
What kind of food does one eat on the fourth of July?
It depends on where you are in America, but here’s some standard items:
- Hamburgers (yes we call them hamburgers, not just burgers)
- Hot dogs: usually all beef. These are different than the ones you have in Britain, and usually a lot better.
- Corn on the cob: grilled, then held with little skewers and eaten with a little bit of butter.
- Other grilled meats: could be chicken, sausage, even fish- pretty much anything that’s dead.
- Chips and dips: usually potato chips and a dip made out of Lipton’s onion soup mix and sour cream. Another popular dip in the south or west is known as “seven layer dip,” which is a mexican-influenced concoction layered with beans, guacamole, black olives, cheese and tomatoes.
- Potato salad: The most important thing is the potato salad. It’s not the fourth of July without it (see below).
Potato salad? Really?
Yes, really. It’s the most important ingredient for a successful fourth of July, apart from maybe beer, fireworks and freedom. And the while the recipe for the salad may vary from town to town or even family to family, it’s a must-have food item. Some people swear by German potato salad (usually served warm, with no mayonnaise) and others by regular potato salad (heavy on the mayo and served cold), but if you can’t choose, you should have both.
So what should I bring if I’m invited to a fourth of July barbecue?
Booze, preferably beer, plus any of the above food items, except potato salad. You’re a foreigner. Your potato salad sucks and no one in America will like it. Except if you’re German- you can bring potato salad, but warn your host so that they can be sure to also have non-German potato salad as well. God I miss potato salad.
How does it work- how are things served?
The fourth is a very masculine and conservative celebration. Men usually take charge of the grilling. Watching a group of alpha-males huddled around a heat-source, arguing about whether the meat is ready to serve, is a sight as old as America itself. Everything else is served buffet style, with paper plates and plastic forks and knives. There’s nothing more ‘fourth of July’ than watching someone sit on a folding chair, swatting away at mosquitoes, as they eat food from a paper plate, sagging under the weight of a pile of meat and potato salad. Using fine china or silverware at a fourth of July party would be committing a worse faux pas than interrupting the festivities with a long speech about the virtues of communism.
What’s for dessert at the fourth of July?
Pie, cobblers, brownies, ice cream, and s’mores are some of the favourites. S’mores- virtually unknown outside of America, are little sandwiches of graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate and marshmallows. The marshmallows should either be browned or burnt (opinions vary) by being dangled over the grill using the end of a pointy stick or an unfolded wire coat hanger. We know you Brits think Hershey’s chocolate is rubbish- and I don’t disagree, but the very thing you hate about it, it’s plasticity, makes it perfect for a s’more, as it doesn’t get too melty. S’mores are America’s special secret tasty treat. And no, you may not have one if you’re going to bang on about the superiority of British chocolate. That’s the kind of thing that will lead us to branding you “just another King George III-style fucktard.”
What about beer and alcohol? What does one drink?
In the old days, the beer was always domestic, usually budweiser in cans, but as tastes have changed, bottled beers and microbrew brands are now commonplace. Frozen drinks- made to order- are also somewhat common, but they should be kept simple and served without much fuss in plastic cups. You can have iced tea if you don’t drink alcohol, but absolutely everything you drink should be unpretentious and ice cold. And yes, we all have those big red plastic cups. I don’t know the story behind why all American party cups have to be big, red and plastic- stores sell them that way and we buy them.
Why the obsession with cold drinks?
It’s hot in America in summertime. Like, really hot. Picture the hottest day its ever been in Britain, and then picture it hotter and more humid, and add a big roaring barbecue to the equation.
What about the fireworks?
In many American states, fireworks are illegal, but on the fourth of July you’ll still find them everywhere. Kids are given sparklers to play with, and the adults will be busy setting off all kinds of ordnance throughout the night, the bigger, the better. Generally, on the 5th of July, local newspapers are filled with stories about people having lost fingers or hands due to reckless use of these explosives. It’s part of the price we pay for our freedom from George the III.
Are there any formal celebrations of the fourth?
Yes- every town in America has a parade that day, usually run by the local fire department, with the participation of boy and girl scout troops and veterans groups. They’re simple processions, often with marching band music. Most communities will also have an official fireworks celebration that will commence as the sun goes down, usually centred around a lake, river or park. Children stay up late, people bring folding chairs and jockey for the best viewing points. It’s all very civilised, very communal, and very friendly. It’s a glimpse of America at its best.
Anything else I need to know?
For me – when I think about the fourth of July, I think about fireflies. I know they exist in other countries, but there’s something quintessentially American about sitting around in the heat on the fourth, drinking beer, and admiring these glorious little insects as they illuminate tiny segments of the sky. For me, there’s no better firework display.
Another interesting aspect to the fourth of July is that it’s usually the only occasion in America where it’s more typical for everyone to be listening to the radio, rather than cds, spotify playlists or other digital whatnots. There’s something about listening to old-fashioned analogue radio stations on the fourth of July that enables you to feel connected on some level with the people around you- who just might be listening to the same lousy pop music and boring deejays. And that on this one evening of the year, we’re pretty much all sharing the same experiences and celebrating the same things- even if we come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, or religions, we’re all out in our yards, gardens and parks, complaining about the heat, eating grilled meat, drinking beer and blowing shit up and thinking about what a dick King George III was. And that my British friends, is what makes the fourth of July so beautiful.
God bless America.