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Feasting On The Fourth

Meryle Evans / June 7th, 2013

An alfresco feast of turtle soup in Hoboken, New Jersey...miles of roasted pig in refreshment booths set up in Manhattan’s City Hall Park...poached salmon, fresh peas, and new potato suppers in New England...and copious quantities of porter, ginger beer, mead, brandy, wine, and punch to toast freedom—that was our forefathers' exuberant 19th century Independence Day, celebrated with military pomp, lengthy orations, spectacular fireworks, and an orgy of eating and drinking.

Foreign visitors, fascinated by our Fourth of July rituals, wrote lengthy descriptions in their journals. The British author Captain Frederick Marryat, who spent the Fourth of July in New York City in 1837, recalled that booths were set up the whole length of Broadway, "on which were displayed small plates of oysters, with a fork stuck in the board opposite to each plate; clams sweltering in the hot sun; pineapples, boiled hams, pies, puddings, barley-sugar, and many other indescribables. But what was most remarkable...in every booth there was a pig, large or small, six miles of roast pig...and that in New York alone; and roast pig in every other city, town, hamlet, and village in the Union." The "necessary articles of potation," Marryat noted, included gin-slings, cocktails, and mint juleps.

But with thousands of tipsy tipplers roaming City Hall Park, local dignitaries retreated inside City Hall to attend the lavish annual banquet (at taxpayers' expense) of the Corporation of the City of New York. One newspaper tartly reported that preparations for the dinner included a preliminary tasting, where the guests sampled "costly wines which the people are to supply their obedient public servants."

A menu for the 1825 Corporation dinner in the collections of The New-York Historical Society lists 51 main dishes—spread over two courses—along with 12 desserts and an additional 15 fruits and ices. After green turtle and lobster soups, the guests moved on to fish (blackfish, sheepheads, trout); haunches of beef, lamb, and venison; a range of poultry from duck to capon to turkey, lobster patties, as well as sweetbreads, eel, and pigeon pies. The cooks combed the market for delicacies—ragoûts and stews of "Gallipagos [sic]," green, and snapping turtles; woodcock, partridges, and wild pigeons; lamb, veal and pigs feet; galantines and smoked tongue. For dessert, they tucked into puddings, fruit tarts, cheesecakes, trifles and syllabubs, and an array of fresh fruits, ices, and ice creams.

As the nation expanded, along with its waistline, so did the variety of Fourth of July victuals. Historian James R. Heintze (who has compiled a comprehensive Fourth of July database on his website, gurukul.american.edu) documents myriad celebrations: in Amherst, New Hampshire, the whole town devoted one Fourth to catching fish in a nearby pond and cooking up large pots of chowder; a Magnolia, Texas, barbecue included fried fish, pork, mutton, cabbage, potatoes, pickels [sic], wine, ale, and cakes, while ham, baked and boiled beans, biscuits, johncake, apple pie, and rice pudding comprised dinner on the frontier near Ft. Laramie, Wyoming.

By the late 19th century, chefs were drawing crowds for sumptuous Independence Day dinners at elegant hotels and resorts across the country. Menus preserved at the New York Public Library attest to their skill in adapting basically French dishes to American ingredients and predilections. At the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1900, the chicken broth was "a la Washington," the consommé "Lafayette," fried spring chicken "a la Walter Raleigh," and the punch "Independence."

Tongue was a surprising favorite on many of the menus. At the Colorado, it was boiled corned tongue à la duxelles, at the Hygeia Hotel in Old Point Comfort, Virginia, fresh beef tongue à l’ecarlate, and in Bronxville, New York, the Hotel Gramatan served Langue en Belevue [sic]. Among the desserts, apple pie was de rigueur, along with a profusion of puddings and popular sweets of the period like lemon cream pie and angel food cake.

New Englanders paid homage to the plentiful wild salmon that ran in rivers, served traditionally with seasonal peas and new potatoes. In 1888, the Bass Rock Hotel in Gloucester, Massachusetts, embellished boiled salmon and peas with cardinal sauce and hollandaise potatoes, a dish that the plain-living Massachusetts native John Adams would have found too rich. But it was Adams, jubilant after the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted for freedom from England in July 1776, who proposed in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that independence "ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [sic], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations, from one End of this Continent to the other, from this Time forward forever more..."