On this patriotic holiday – as on pretty much every other holiday – I have one deep philosophical concern: “What shall we eat?” In today’s case, I wonder what foods are patriotic? How do things like that get decided, anyway?
A simple answer is that classically seasonal summer foods – grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, corn on the cob, watermelon – have gotten the stamp of approval as appropriate celebrations of patriotism because their season coincides with the season of the holiday. But that’s not much fun to ponder, so let’s set it aside.
When we talk about “American food,” what do we mean? Clearly we don’t mean foods that originated on the North American continent. While corn on the cob fits that description, few of the other foods that commonly make the list do. If we meant foods native to our country’s soil, we’d all be eating pemmican and acorn mush today.
So, if the definition of “American food” isn’t food native to the country, pretty much all the remaining candidates are imports. While some argue that the hot dog is an American native, it seems more likely that the style of sausage developed in Germany. It may be that the idea of placing the sausage in a bun originated at a World’s Fair in the U.S. (The corn dog, on the other hand, is an American invention, but is not particularly associated with Independence Day, perhaps because battered and fried dishes are rarely made by home cooks.)
So what makes foods like watermelon and pizza stand out as American foods? I think maybe it’s how long and how thoroughly they’ve been embraced by the American people. Watermelon, believed to be of African origin, was cultivated by native Americans at least as far back as the 1600s. Pizza is clearly Italian and a much more recent import – according to Wikipedia, slices were sold on the streets from metal washtubs in the very late 19th century – but has been wholeheartedly embraced as a food loved by everyone.
So. What does all this mean to me as I decide what to eat on the Fourth of July?
I think American food is food Americans love. And as we set out to celebrate America and our most cherished foods, what could be better than fusing classic Americana with foodstuffs we are just now learning to love? Foods that challenge and excite us and demonstrate how, as a culture, we continue to grow and change.
There are many possibilities for such foods. But I made kimchi last week. So our lunch this Fourth of July? Nathan’s hot dogs undergirded with sriracha mayonnaise and topped with a generous pile of homemade kimchi.
And salt-and-vinegar potato chips, because yum.
I really wish I had an audio recording of Arne’s response to these hot dogs, which he dubbed the best he’d ever eaten. There were lots of sound effects, including several BOOMs, at least one POW and a WHOOSH or two. His point was, wow, these have a lot of flavor. And boy was he right. The garlicky snap of the Nathan’s hot dog (by far my favorite – sorry, Hebrew National, my old flame), the creamy heat of the mayo, the funky-salty-sweet flame of the kimchi, all gently pillowed in a classic (cheap) hot dog bun. Not to mention the symphony of textures! I can only bear the fact that I’m not eating another one right now because I know we’ll have them again tomorrow.
They’re a snap to make; I mean, we all know how to make a hot dog. Just replace your regular condiments with a healthy dollop of mayo mixed with enough sriracha to get it as hot as you want it (I probably use a 4-to-1 ratio) and some kimchi. The purchased stuff will certainly do – I prefer COSMOS brand, which has a wonderful effervescence from the fermentation process – but if you can make your own, all the better. I use a slightly modified version of David Chang’s recipe from the book Momofuku, which I will post soon. Or, for a version with a little more cool crispness, try topping your dogs with a quickly assembled homemade cucumber kimchi.
And happy Fourth!