A family Fourth
Special to the Daily
There’s a special loveliness about the way we celebrate the Fourth of July. In a world where holidays have become one big shopping mall/greeting card extravaganza, it’s one of the few homegrown holidays left. It’s meant to be celebrated with quick n’ easy grill foods, a hometown parade, and fireworks put on by someone else, so all you have to do is sit back and watch.
Like many other people, my childhood memories of the Fourth of July center around three things: Parades, watermelons and outdoor grilling.
The Atlanta of my childhood not only had one of the nation’s biggest parades (it still does), but it also had the famous Watermelon Eating Contest at the old Atlanta Farmer’s Market.
In honor of this event, July 4th was the day we would have our first watermelon of the summer, cut carefully by my father with the big dull carving knife ” rarely used, so never sharpened ” with my mother yelling from the sofa, “Ed, you’re gonna cut yourself!” As the dogs gathered around and sniffed the rinds that dropped to the linoleum floor, my dad would stack up the huge, gorgeous wedges of red and green ” Christmas colors, in the middle of summer. Of course, like every other Southern-belle mama, our mother would tell my brother and me that if we swallowed a watermelon seed, a watermelon would grow in our tummy. Parents don’t understand that children don’t perceive this as a threat; it only encourages them.
For a holiday so centered on food, it’s a cultural enigma that July 4th is the one big day when the guys take over most of the cooking. Perhaps the act of standing over a hot smoking grill atop a stack of smoldering charcoal stirs some prehistoric Neanderthal memories of crouching over a fire with a bloody slab of mammoth ribs ” I don’t know. But I’m sure those mammoth ribs didn’t have the yummy flavor of burnt lighter fluid and bottled sucrose-based barbecue sauce that modern grilling had attained by the early 1970s.
Considering it was his day off, my dad worked pretty hard on the Fourth of July. Every year, as soon as the parade was over on TV, he would get to work. The first step was to scour the grill racks ” which we hadn’t used since the year before ” with Brillo pads and stack them in the sink. During that time, we would start parboiling to death the beef ribs my father had bought at the store the night before, while Dad mixed his special hamburgers, adding his top-secret ingredients of Worcester sauce and two raw eggs. By this time, the dogs were in an ecstasy of greed, convinced that this feast was being prepared solely for them. They gathered in a large huddle in the middle of the kitchen floor and refused to budge, so that much of the rest of the day was spent in trying to climb over them.
After my father got the grill started, coaxing it with equal amounts of lighter fluid and cuss words, we started bringing the platters of half-cooked ribs out to him. By the time he started slathering the first slab with sauce, a huge clap of thunder would come out of nowhere, causing the dogs to jump and look at each other suspiciously.
For the next hour, my Dad loaded up the grill and slathered sauce with one eye on the skies, while my Mom kept yelling from the house to look out for lightning. The thunder kept coming back to tease us every couple of minutes. Meanwhile, the dogs remained in their huddle, discussing whether or not it was worth risking a burnt paw or two to jump on the grill and snatch a rib.
It never actually started to rain until we got all the food in; then it turned into a downpour. As we ate our picnic in the kitchen, we congratulated ourselves on getting it all done before the rain came; this was, after all, part of our tradition.
Another tradition was to recycle our rib bones by using them as appeasement offerings to the dogs, who by this time were miffed that the smoking platters of charred meat hadn’t miraculously appeared next to their water bowls on the floor.
They counted on our having a guilty conscience about this and hovered at our elbows, waiting rapaciously to finish our rib bones for us. After cleaning the meat off the bones in a matter of minutes, they carried them around the house for the next couple of weeks ” sometimes gnawing on them, sometimes indulging in fencing matches ” until my mom finally managed to get the petrified bones away from them and throw them out.
There’s a fenced-in part of the yard where those dogs are sleeping now; and to this day, every Fourth of July, one of us goes over and throws a rib bone over the fence, just to let them know that we’re thinking of them.
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