Summers are marked, in my mind, by a triptych of grills. The first panel is centered on Memorial Day, the official opening of grilling season. This panel offers scenes of earlier efforts, when a planned late-April meal of grilled rack of lamb might turn into a cold, blustery, and miserable afternoon on the patio before admitting defeat and retreating to finish the lamb in the oven. But it also includes such treats as salads made with the spring’s first lettuce, grilled asparagus, and strawberries.
The last panel is Labor Day, the true harvest celebration when everything is in season. Fresh tomatoes for slicing, corn for grilling, perhaps fire-roasted Cornish hens or even simple Steaks Florentine, and peach cobbler doled out in large bowls with homemade vanilla ice cream.
There would always be a few more days spent with fire and beer, wine, or cocktail on the patio or porch following Labor Day – good days – but still, at best, a lingering goodbye before the grill and smoker were wiped down for the last time, the ashes scrubbed out, and the covers pulled over them until the next season.
In the center, the place of honor, is the 4th of July. Could our forefathers and foremothers have picked a better date for a national holiday? First, unlike most holidays in this country, the date doesn’t vary. It is the fourth. If it falls on a Wednesday then by God you get Wednesday off (unless you work at 7/11). As much as I love long weekends, I really don’t approve of moving holidays – don’t get me started on Easter, which wanders like a drunken sailor from date to date.
Since it’s smack dab in the middle of summer, the weather on the 4th is usually (albeit not always) great for grilling. It’s too hot, but that’s what cold beverages, pools, patio umbrellas, and breezes are for. Tomatoes are usually beginning to arrive so gazpacho should be on the menu. Summer squash, perfect for grilling, hasn’t yet become anathema of oversized zuchinni, best used for hitting baseballs. If you’re lucky you might find some early corn and melons at a farm stand.
When I lived in Oregon I was a mile from the University of Oregon stadium, which featured a magnificent fireworks display on the 4th. So the two summers I lived there I invited friends over for a late picnic.
I’d spend the day slowly smoking pork ribs that had spent the previous 24 hours soaking up flavor from a dry rub. While the ribs smoked I’d make marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, potato salad, perhaps bake some sourdough rolls, maybe make a lime mousse and whip up some munchies.
My guests would begin arriving around 7:30 and paying their cost of entry: A bottle of dry sparkling wine. The 4th is a celebration and so something bubbly is required. (Besides, champagne is surprisingly good with barbequed pork: it cuts straight through the fat.) Once everyone had arrived we’d load the platters with food and adjourn to the lawn, a large courtyard behind my apartment: A courtyard festooned with blooming roses not unlike small, quiet, and still fireworks as a guest pointed out.
We’d settle on plaid, woolen blankets I’d spread on the grass, load our paper plates, wield our plastic utensils, and clink our glass champagne flutes (sparkling wine should never be served in plastic, it ruins the whole idea). Then we’d gorge. We’d finish eating just as it became a bit too dark to see. Plates and platters would be gathered up and taken inside, desserts would be distributed, and we’d return to the blankets outside for the climax – the bombs bursting in air.
Those backyard, 4th of July picnics occurred 15 years ago. But that’s alright. This and other holidays and events have kept my memory stocked with good times and good food.
So do something special this 4th and grill something special. Such memories are better than sleeping pills when you’re worrying about an insurance claim at 1 a.m. in January. They’ll keep you warmer than a thermal blanket.