K-State expert discusses all-American foods for the 4th of July
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Today's ideas of a traditional Fourth of July menu are probably more associated with patriotic picnics than with original American food, according to a Kansas State University expert on American cuisine.
Jane P. Marshall is a hospitality management and dietetics instructor in K-State's College of Human Ecology and teaches a course on the development of American cuisine.
She said a truly authentic American meal on July Fourth would include native-grown foods such as bison, salmon, wild rice, chilies, squash, corn and maybe a Jerusalem artichoke or two.
"For dessert you might select berries -- large American strawberries unlike the dwarf mountain variety in Europe, wild black berries, sweet black cherries or cranberries," she said. "The first American colonists brought their sweet tooth with them. What you wouldn't have is a table groaning with cakes, pie, cookies and ice cream."
These ideal American foods have obviously changed through the years. Marshall said that modern ideas of all-American cuisine consists of foods that early immigrants developed in imitation of meals from their homelands, such as Tex-Mex and Cajun-Creole.
"These regional specialties, now ubiquitous across the nation and far beyond, were born on American soil," she said. "Both are what food historians and anthropologists call 'native foreign food.' Tex-Mex was built from a rich Spanish heritage and Texas cattle country. Creole borrows from Africa, France, Native America and Spain."
So while some modern Fourth of July meals feature enchiladas and nachos or gumbo and pralines, others may stick with traditional picnic fare, such as fried chicken, Marshall said. Although not an American invention, fried chicken is an American tradition that was considered company fare in the 19th century -- fit for celebrations and a visit from the preacher, she said.
The evolution of ideal American foods continued with the rise and influence of major American companies and food inventions. Marshall said that in 1932 Coca-Cola suggested that the ideal picnic menu consists of sandwiches, potato salad, pickles, olives and pretzels -- all washed down with an ice-cold Coke.
"Another Fourth of July menu could be new all-American food inventions," she said. "For example, around 1935 American grocers carried Twinkies, Fritos and Kool-Aid. In the past 10 years we have added tomato grapes, mud pie and Yukon gold potatoes. Cake dyed red, white and blue joined the July Fourth table after cake mixes were invented in the 1920s."
Any of these options would be great menus for a Fourth of July celebration, Marshall said, but she suggests looking at your own family traditions for patriotic inspiration. She said savoring the food and stories that go with an old recipe celebrates both family and country.
"Whatever the cuisine, lively July Fourth celebrations are as old as the nation," Marshall said. "Wagon trains traveling through Kansas stopped long enough to celebrate. The smallest town on the prairie held elaborate parades and community activities. On July Fourth it's the spirit more than the food that counts for most people."
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