Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Is Local Food Cheaper?

You'd probably not get much argument if you claimed that fresh, locally-grown produce from the farmer's market tastes better than large-scale agribusiness produce picked unripe and shipped across the country or even across the ocean and sold in your nearby chain grocery. But, what if you claimed that the local produce was also a heck of a lot cheaper? It seems so counterintuitive that you'd been tempted to reject it outright with a wave of a hand, or at least I would.

The reason for the demise of small, local farmers, I've thought all along, is that with the industrial-farmed stuff shoppers get the benefit of cheaper prices due to economies of scale. In addition, because of transport from distant warm climates, fresh (or, at least, non-canned and non-frozen) vegetables and fruits are available any time of the year--breaking the tyranny of the seasons and putting in place a distribution network that can generate revenue twelve months out of the year rather than just during a seasonal harvest. The trucked-in stuff may not taste quite as good, but the cost savings more than makes up for it for the average consumer.

That was my theory, at least. Recent observation and reading is making me wonder something: could it be that small-scale, local produce is actually cheaper than the stuff you get at the supermarket? Could it be that the average shopper is paying a good bit more for a tomato or a cucumber that doesn't taste nearly as good as the real thing? Advocates of "eating local" have recently come under criticism that claims the philosophy is inherently elitist, a luxury available to those who have the extra income necessary to indulge in higher-priced specialty varieties. Could it be that the critics have it exactly backwards?

Sam Breach over at Becks & Posh raised alot of these questions not too long ago when she compared the prices from San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market to those at Safeway and found the farmer's market to be consistently cheaper. There's an obvious explanation for this. At a farmer's market you are cutting out the middle man, so one would expect to see lower prices. But, at the same time, the supermarket is providing the added convenience of a big parking lot, a deli with fried chicken, and many other niceties. The farmer's market (in Charleston, at least) is where you go on the weekend when you don't mind taking a while to park and browse around the various vendor stalls and take time picking out food. It's not where you go when you are racing home for work and need to pick up just a couple of things (including toothpaste, beer, and baby diapers in addition to some veggies for dinner). The farmer's market won't scale.

The overhead for a farmer's market vendor is pretty low (compare the lease on a market stall with an anchor-tenant spot in a strip mall), and the savings gets passed on to the consumer. What you are paying for in the supermarket is the convenience of getting everything in a single place, and with nice shopping carts and bagboys to boot. So, while the supermarket can "leverage economies of scale" to save on their cost of "sourcing" their vegetables (to sling a little lingo), they also have a lot higher overhead than their hippie competitors down at the farmer's market.

But the same effect seems to apply not just at outdoor markets but at regular 7-day-a-week specialty shops. Why is fresh, locally-caught medium shrimp at Mt. Pleasant Seafood on Shem Creek only five bucks a pound when in the local supermarket it's seven and at Whole Foods (aptly nicknamed "Whole Paycheck") it's up over ten? How come the Boone Hall Farms market can sell a locally-grown green bell pepper for 33 cents when it's $1.19 at Bi-Lo? I'd noticed such disparities in passing, but it's hard to extrapolate a trend for just a few random points of data--perhaps the only reason the lower cost of local stuff even caught my eye was that it was the unusual exception to the rule?

In the interest of science, I've conducted a little research, and here are the results of my price comparison between a basic slate of produce at Publix (the supermarket chain) and at the locally-owned Boone Hall Farms' produce store, which sells a lot of fruit and vegetables raised right here in Mount Pleasant on their large working farm. All the items on the list were selected prior to visiting either store, with an eye to selecting those vegetables I knew could be locally grown and were in season:

ProductBoone Hall Farms Publix
Cucumbers:$.33 each$.65 each
Red potatoes$.59/lb.$1.29/lb.
Green beans$.99/lb.$1.49/lb.
Sweet corn:$.40/ear$.50/ear
Yellow onions:$.59/lb.$1.29/lb.
Yellow squash:$.99/lb.$1.49/lb.

Across the board, the local farm store is consistently less expensive than the supermarket--ranging from 20% less to almost a third the price.

The real question is how much of this is the "local effect" and how much is due to different overhead costs. So, to try to tease that out, I compared the prices of a slate of produce that were definite NOT local:

Green leaf lettuce:$.99/each$1.49/each
Dole bananas:$.49/lb.$.49/lb.
Granny Smith apples:$.99/lb.$1.99/lb.

The results here are a little less conclusive, but it appears that the local farm market store may run a little cheaper than the supermarket, but not significantly so.

This is all very unscientific and just a preliminary survey, but based upon these figures I would hazard a hypothesis: fresh, locally-grown fruits and veggies are actually cheaper--significantly cheaper--than the nationally- and internationally-imported produce sold by your typical supermarket--at least when it is in season.

Which leads me to believe that it wasn't price at all but rather the convenience of being able to buy tomatoes in January and bell peppers in March that led us down the road of accepting the substandard quality of the long-haul version over the local, freshly-picked item. We would gladly pay twice as much for a tomato in January as we would in July, even though the flavor wasn't nearly as good--it was better than not having the tomato at all. And after a while we forgot how delicious and inexpensive local tomatoes were when they were in season and just kept buying them at the supemarket at the same consistent price year-round.

That's my working theory, at least.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Jack's Cosmic Dogs

One of the great delights in moving from one side of Charleston to the other (from West Ashley to Mt. Pleasant) is that a whole new world of restaurants opened up to me that are just right around the corner. We were in the habit of driving over to Mt. P frequently to eat anyway, but now everything is so darn close.

And that includes Jack's Cosmic Dogs, a Lowcountry joint that was created as a throwback to the old roadside hotdog stands of earlier years. The building is retro-cool, with cinder block walls painted bright yellow outside and bright red inside. The 1960s-style tables come with mismatched metal and vinyl chairs, and you order at a stainless steel-fronted counter with wooden top. An old-school ice bin offers Sundrop and RC Cola in real glass bottles, and there's a Galaga machine in the corner (okay, one of the newer Galaga/Ms. Pacman throwback combos, but the spirit is the same.) An old pie server has been recycled and serves and the handle on the front screen door (and how many restaurants have screen doors these days?)

The hot dogs are sizzled up fresh on a flattop griddle and served not on a plain old bun but on a big seeded roll For a classic chili dog, try the Atomic dog--chili, onions, spicy mustard (pictured to the left). If you're more adventurous, there are several dogs with a great blue cheese coleslaw on them, including the Cosmic dog with the slaw and Jack's homemade sweet potato mustard. The french fries are hand-cut from fresh potatoes, which is the only way fries should be made.

The first time I ate at Jack's I wondered to myself: "is this a chain?" Everything was just a little too retro and hip, and there's lots of funky paintings on the wall by various artists showing renderings of Jack's building and sign--one painting by a local artist would be understandable, but several? Jack's Cosmic Dogs is, however, a true local spot, and the Mount Pleasant location--open since 2000--is the only one (for now, at least).

The Jack behind the operation, by the way, is Jack Hurley, a local realtor who sells houses on Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms. He created the restaurant to recapture the hotdog stands he loved as a kid, and it works--from the screen door down to the Sundrop on ice (a brand of lemon-lime soda sold mostly in the South), it takes me back to the kind of places we used to stop off on the road as a kid on family trips to the beach or the North Carolina mountains. And the hot dogs are really good, too.

Jack's Cosmic Dogs (2805 Highway 17 North, Mount Pleasant, SC, 843-884-7677). Open 7 days a week, 11 am to 8 pm.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tomato Season

My folks came down from Rock Hill to visit this weekend and brought with them a sack of fresh tomatoes from their garden. Memorial Day, end of school, solstice, or what-have-you--those don't mark the beginning of summer. For me it's the first fresh garden-grown tomato. They are great in salads, on sandwiches, and in sauces, but for my money the best way to enjoy is to just slice, sprinkle with a little salt & pepper, and eat. Mmm. Summer.

Waiting for Chang

I ate at P. F. Chang's China Bistro in Nashville on a recent business trip. I probably wouldn't even bother to write about it except that the friends I was eating with gave it a huge build up, raving about how good it was for two solid days before we ate there--and raved about it during and after the meal, too.

P.F. Chang's website has a page entitled "Concept" which explains that "the P.F. Chang experience" is "a unique combination of Chinese cuisine, attentive service, wine, and tempting desserts all served in a stylish, high-energy bistro." It's a bit surprising I've managed to avoid getting dragged into one before, since there are 134 of them across the country. (No, there's not one in Charleston yet--the closest is up in Greenville, SC.)

For the record, there is nothing outright bad about P. F. Chang's. The food was pretty good. I had the Chengdu Spiced Lamb, keeping with my recent lamb addiction. The service was (as promised) attentive, and the room had the nice dark wood and brass feel that is standard for most upscale restaurants ("bistros") these days. It was a decent dinner, and we had great conversation and all in all an enjoyable night out.

And I won't mind one way or another if I never go there again.

The food at P. F. Chang's is, at best, "Chinese-inspired," as it has very little to do with real Chinese cooking. But this isn't very surprising. Even after a twenty year renaissance of world cuisine in the United States--when you can get everything from Thai noodles to falafel at Middle America mall food courts--it is exceptionally difficult in the U.S. to find authentic Chinese cooking. Even in San Francisco and Washington DC's Chinatown's you have to look hard to find food like what is actually served in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Even so, something about the fusion seems a little silly. For example, the "Chicken Lettuce Wraps" appetizer, which everyone who's ever been to P. F. Chang's seems to adore, consists of finely-minced chicken mixed with onions, water chestnuts, and Asianesque spices rolled up in, for some reason, a leaf of iceberg lettuce. East meets West.

A big piece of the P. F. Chang concept is "creating custom sauces tableside," which is an old piece of restaurant chicanery that dates back at least to the Caesar salad if not before. In Chang's case, it involves coming to the table with a little rack containing cups of soy sauce, peppers, spices, and sesame oil which the waitress mixes right there in front of you (with some self-conscious patter to make sure you notice she is fresh-mixing your sauce for you.)

The sauce wasn't bad--a spicy soy and ginger kind of thing--but it would have been just as good if it had been mixed up by a prep guy in the kitchen days before. It's a little thing, but it's an example of the kind of fakery that adds nothing to the meal but goes to convince the rubes that they are getting something "upscale".

The real annoyance, though, was that we had to wait for a table. And not just wait, but wait in a crowded bar where we were constantly jostled by fellow patrons for a good forty-five minutes (maybe that's the "high energy" part of the concept) and had to hang onto one of those irritating restaurant pagers so we could be summoned when our table was ready. And this was on a totally uneventful Tuesday night.

I have recently identified the hallmark of all the restaurants I can't stand: you have to wait a long, long time for a table.

Waiting for a table seems to have a magical effect on many diners. In part, perhaps, once you've waited an hour smelling freshly cooked food and getting hungrier by the minute and downing one or two cocktails, you're probably more likely to find whatever meal you are eventually served to be far tastier than if you'd just walked in off the street a few minutes before. And, of course, there's the psychological effect of seeing a crowd of people jamming into a restaurant: if all these other people are waiting, it must be good food.

Waiting just makes me cranky, and makes me despise all the other people around me for being so gullible that they would fall for the same trickery that I figure I've fallen for, too.

If I were at a temple of gastronomy, where renowned chefs served up fresh, original dishes that differed every night and you would get a dinner that wowed you and made your taste buds soar, then maybe I could be persuaded that it was worth waiting almost an hour in a line to sample what was an unmatched culinary experience unavailable anywhere else.

But why wait for an eternity to have ordinary line-cooked dishes served up in an automated fashion--the same dishes you can get at literally 134 different places? Surely there's a nice, creative, local bistro just down the street where the chef will surprise you with something you can't get just anywhere and--best of all--you don't have to wait crammed in a loud bar with fifty other suckers waiting for the tableside show?

Okay, so it's not really fair to blame all this on P. F. Chang's. But the "concept" didn't win me over and I'm tired of hearing my friends rave about how great a place it is.

Until further notice I'll be having my meals out at Jack's Cosmic Dogs.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Moving House

It's finally done. We have moved. It took almost a year to sell the old house, less than a week to find the new one, and then a two-week forced march to pack everything up and transport it across town. One of the interesting (maybe even pleasant) side effects is that in the process of moving I had to get rid of almost all of my food stocks.

We moved out of our old house on Thursday, stayed in a motel Thursday night, and moved into the new one on Friday. That meant the refrigerator (including the freezer) had to be completely empty. We had a single cooler for the bare essentials like milk and yogurt for the kids and a few condiments and cheeses that would stand up to the trip. But, by and large, everything else had to go.

And that meant that Friday afternoon, once the refrigerator was unloaded from the truck and set up in my new kitchen, it was, without a doubt, about as bare as it has been since it was purchased. (The photo above shows it on Saturday morning, just after my wife made a quick convenience store run for orange juice, Dove ice cream bars, and a few other staples.)

In the process of cleaning out the fridge at the old house, I unloaded quarts of frozen stock and leftover chili and small scraps of meat that--let's face it--I would never, ever eat even if we had to survive a nuclear winter. Before the move, the doors were groaning with bottle after bottle of barbecue sauce, each half empty, and countless jars of pickles and peppers and crazy Asian curry pastes. Out they all went into a gigantic black Hefty bag.

I have promised myself that I won't let this opportunity pass me by, that I will turn over a new leaf and make myself actually use up everything I have purchased before I go out to the store and go through another round of purchasing. Never again, I have sworn, will my freezer turn into the Antarctic of the Lost Tupperware Containers.

We'll see how that turns out.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

At Last! Secrets of the Mojito Revealed!

It's taken almost a year and three trips down to Puerto Rico, bit I think I finally figured out the secrets of the mojito. I'd been close to the right formula for some time, but just a few short steps--and my own pigheadedness--stood in the way.

My first experience with a mojito was a complete bust; the second was sublime. The first was at the bar at the Marriott in Asheville, North Carolina, where the mojito was the special drink of the day. I'd never had one before but had been hearing a lot of noise about them (this was back when they were first becoming trendy again), so I took a flyer on one. The bartender lackadaisically mushed up some mint in a glass with a bar spoon, added in rum and lime juice, then topped the remaining three-quarters of the tall glass off with club soda from the bar gun. It was watery, vaguely minty, and not at all refreshing.

The second time I had mojito was in the Lobby Bar at the Ritz Carlton in San Juan Puerto Rico. The mojito is Cuban in origin, but San Juan is apparently close enough to the source that they know what they are doing. The bartender used a big wooden mortar and pestle and a lot of elbow grease to muddle up the mint, and the result was a drink that was smooth and sweet and had the most delightful neon green color--night and day from the Marriott version, and one of the best cocktails I've ever had.

I've been trying ever since that first visit to recreate the Ritz version of the mojito in my own kitchen, but with only limited success. My end products were always too strongly alcoholic and never had that deep, beautiful green color--more just bits of mint leaves in a clearish, limey fluid. Even a second visit to the San Juan Ritz and some surreptitious scrutiny of the bartender as he mixed up the drinks left me well short of the mark.

I recently made a third visit to Puerto Rico (fortunately, under the guise of business, so I don't have to fund the research on my own) and, following more ruthless experimentation and extensive reading, I think I have finally got the thing nailed.

In my earlier attempts, I made three critical errors:

  1. Using a gold rum rather than plain old silver rum

  2. Avoiding club soda

  3. Using simple syrup instead of granulated sugar
All three of these can be attributed to arrogance and bad assumptions. On the first, I blithely assumed that if you used a better grade of rum--Mount Gay, in this case, rather than plain old Bacardi--you'd end up with a better mojito. Not true. The darker rum doesn't harmonize as well with the mint, lime, and sugar.

For #2 (biased, admittedly, by my experience at the Marriott) I assumed that adding soda to a mojito simply watered it down, so I had been leaving it out altogether. After all, I hadn't tasted club soda in the Ritz version--but, it turns out it was there, just in the proper proportion to the other ingredients.

And, on point #3, I was just too full of myself. I had discovered simple syrup quite a while back and had been using it proudly for everything from cocktails to sweet tea. So, I sneeringly assumed that all those mojito recipes I saw that called for a tablespoon (or more) of sugar were just shortcut versions and that the pros would use a splash of simple syrup, and I assumed that it would be best to go a little light on the syrup to avoid a sticky sweet drink.

Wrong again. As it turns out, granulated sugar and lots of it is the key, for when you muddle it with the mint it helps to really break down the leaves and grind out the mint oil and create that wonderful smooth flavor, and the bright green color, too.

So, duly chastised but delighted with my most recent batch, I can now offer up the following instructions for creating what (in my mind at least) is the ideal mojito:

6 -8 large, fresh mint leaves
2 T sugar (yes, that's tablespoons: you don't want to skimp on the sugar)
3 T rum (or a bit more if you like them strong)
Juice of 1 lime
2 T of club soda (One of the curious things about mojito recipes is that almost no one specifies how much soda to use. I find 2 T to be about right.)

Add the mint leaves and sugar to a mortar and grind vigorously until the mint is starting to disintegrate and are melding into the sugar. (Someday I hope to acquire a big wooden mortar and pestle like they use at the Ritz, but my small stone version seems to do just fine.) Put the sugar and mint into a cocktail shaker and pour in the rum, lime juice, and club soda. Add ice, then shake until well blended. Pour into a rocks glass, garnish with a lime, and enjoy.

I think the key is in the muddling, so spend a little extra time and really work the mint and sugar together. The result is a drink that is startlingly yummy and perfect for a hot summer afternoon.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Raw Milk

I bought a half gallon of raw milk the other day at the Marion Square market at the stand run by Wadmalaw Island's Celeste Albers, who's getting to be quite the local food celebrity these days (see this nice profile in the Charleston City Paper). Unhomogenized and unpasteurized, it's as natural as milk can get.

Proponents claim a range of health benefits from drinking raw milk--everything from its being a good source of energy (which seems pretty likely) to remarkable but sketchy healing powers (see here, for example). But I could really care less about that. My interest is in the taste. And, without a doubt, raw milk has a strong, unique taste that is very unlike your supermarket pasteurized milk.

Part of it is the richness, for whole raw milk is thick and creamy--and yes, if you leave it undisturbed the cream does separate and float to the top. The color is a soothing pale yellow, not the stark whiteness of "regular" milk. But there's more to it than that. The milk has a definite strong taste of--I wasn't sure what it was at first, but it was the same wild flavor that you get with grass-raised beef. And then it struck me. It was the flavor of the grass--a definite hay-like taste/aroma that immediately brought back fuzzy memories of visiting my parent's friends' farms when I was a little kid. To put it bluntly, raw milk tastes the way hay smells.

I had the same reaction to it that I did when I first tried grass-fed beef. I would like to say that the clouds parted and a beam of sunlight burst down and I cried, "What have I been missing all these years?" But I didn't. It was unusual, it was different, it was interesting--but it definitely is an acquired taste. Three decades of a palate raised on pure-white, cool but almost tasteless milk are not wiped away in a single gulp.

But, I'm intrigued enough to keep trying it. I've heard people who were raised on farms say that nothing beats the taste of raw milk fresh from the cow, that it is the most wonderful, warming, and pleasing of all foods. I can see why. It would be like returning to Stilton cheese and a fresh baguette after a steady diet of American cheese or Wonderbread.

I'm just glad to know that there's now a regular supply available in Charleston.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

July 4th Barbecues: A Brief History

July Fourth is upon us, and across the country Americans will be celebrating with barbecue. Hickory-smoked meat has been a part of the holiday for a long time, particularly in the South, stretching back to the very first Independence Day celebrations.

In honor of the holiday, I thought it would be worth pulling a little material out of the old research files about 4th of July barbecues from the old days. The surprising thing about these celebrations is how formal and standardized they became. Town after town celebrated the Fourth in almost exactly the same way. The tradition started in the South, but as settlers moved west into the frontier territories, they took the holiday customs with them, making July Fourth barbecues not just a Southern tradition but an American one.

On 9 July 1808 Miller’s Weekly Messenger of Pendleton, South Carolina, reported the July 4th celebration at Occoney Station in the mountainous western part of the state. Following a parade by the local militia, “a short address suited to the occasion was delivered by the Rev. Mr. ANDREW BROWN; after which they marched to an agreeable and natural arbor, where, in the company with a number of others, they partook of an elegant barbecue.” Occoney (now spelled Oconee) was a newly-settled frontier district, and the newspaper correspondent wrote that, “It was a sight highly pleasing, to see such respectable members meet for the first time in this remote place, to celebrate the anniversary of our national existence.”

The naturalist John James Audubon, traveling in Kentucky in the early part of the century, was a guest at a similar Fourth of July event, which he described in Delineations of American Scenery and Character. The frontier celebration was organized by the community, with area farmers donating the provisions “for the common benefit”—including ox, ham, venison, turkeys, and other fowls—and helping to clear a large area in the woods for the barbecue grounds. The day began with a cannon salute and a patriotic oration, the the company proceeded to the tables for the feast, which was followed by a series of toasts and dancing that continued until sundown.

Most frontier barbecues were free to all comers, but a few were hosted by individuals who charged admission and looked to turn a profit. The following advertisement appeared in a Lexington, Kentucky newspaper in June 1815:


The subscribed respectfully informs the citizens of Fayette and the adjoining counties, that he will prepare an elegant Barbacue Dinner, on the Fourth of July, at his own house, on the Limestone road, nine miles from Lexington. . . . The subscriber furnishes foreign liquors of the best quality for the LADIES—the gentlemen will have free access to the use of domestic liquors. Tickets of admittance, two dollars—there will be no expense nor personal trouble omitted to render his entertainment brilliant and interesting.
Commercial events such as this one seem to have been the exception, not the rule. It would be another century before barbecue became a regular commercial enterprise (in the form of barbecue restaurants).

Most July 4th celebrations were not hosted by a single individual but rather were organized by a “Committee of Arrangements.” This committee generally consisted of three to five men who were elected at a public gathering, and they were usually prominent local citizens such as planters, lawyers, and doctors.

Communal barbecues, drinking, orations, toasts, and dancing were typical of early frontier celebrations, and they soon became part of the holiday ritual in settled towns, too. By the 1820s Independence Day celebrations had become standardized throughout the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Newspaper accounts of these events read almost like boilerplate. The day began with the citizens of the surrounding region gathering to form a procession. Led by local militia units in uniform, the community would march to a central location—usually the courthouse or a church—for the day’s ceremonies. These opened with a prayer by a local minister, then the Declaration of Independence would be read aloud. Often, local musicians would play and sing patriotic songs. The ceremonies always concluded with an oration delivered by a prominent citizen on a topic such as the principles of the Revolution or the importance of the Constitution to civic life. After the proceedings, the citizens would retire to a shady grove for a large dinner, which usually featured barbecued pigs, sheep, and goats.

After the dinner, toasts would be made in celebration of Independence Day, the United States, and its leaders. These began with a series of “regular” toasts, usually thirteen in number, which were prepared in advance and given by prominent persons chosen for the honor. The subjects for the toasts varied from celebration to celebration, but they usually included The U.S. Constitution, prominent political leaders, and abstract patriotic principles such as “Political Liberty” and “The Right to Fight”. The thirteenth toast was almost always devoted to honoring American women (or, “The American Fair”, as it was usually phrased). As each toast was drunk, the crowd would respond, in the words of the Camden [S.C.] Journal in 1831, with “loud huzzas and the firing of guns.”

Once the prepared set of regular toasts was completed, “volunteer toasts” would follow—often as many as thirty or forty—from members of the community. In addition to celebrating war heroes and democratic ideals, these toasts often were directed toward contemporary political issues. At the 1824 celebration in Jackson, Tennessee, for example, the volunteer toasts included support for the country of Greece (“May it be sustained by the Eagle of America”), a plea for the people of the Western District to choose their candidates wisely at the next general election, and a call for the navigation of the Mississippi to remain free to the citizens of the United States and not entangled in any foreign partnerships. Most newspaper accounts of July 4th celebrations published transcriptions of the regular toasts and, in many cases, the volunteer ones as well.

As the number of toasts at these barbecues suggests, there was a lot of drinking going on, and the events were notorious for drunkenness and the violence that naturally came with it. Recalling the Fourth of July barbecues of his childhood in antebellum South Carolina, Dr. Samuel B. Latham noted that the local militia companies would attend the celebration at Caldwell Cross Roads and, after the drills, oration, and dinner, "hard liquor would flow; and each section would present its 'bully of the woods' in a contest for champion in a fist and skull fight. Butting, biting, eye gouging, kicking and blows below the belt were barred. It was primitive prize fighting."

Booze and July Fourth accidents go hand in hand, and there was no shortage of such incidents at early barbecues. In 1834 at the celebration in South Carolina's Union District, Washington Sample had his right hand blown off and his left arm broken when an old cannon, taken from the British during the revolution, discharged while he was reloading it. He had "neglected in his hurry to swab out the gun, and a burning cinder still inside came into contact with the new gunpowder being loaded," but there were only "some faint hopes of his life."

Rough as they were, Fourth of July barbecues had an important civic function beyond simple merrymaking. The entire community would come together at these events and—through the reading of Declaration and the patriotic orations—would reaffirm the guiding principles of the early republic. The toasts were both a celebration of the new country’s history and, in their commentary on current events, a form of political discourse.

So, when you are dropping a slab of ribs on your backyard grill or dropping by your local barbecue joint for a tub of pulled pork, you can rest assured that your July Fourth celebration is continuing a long, rich tradition of patriotic barbecues.

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