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Stirring up memories


Picnic with the presidents
July 4, 2007

A TASTY INDEPENDENCE DAY SALUTE to the third, 32nd, 34th, 37th and 39th American presidents.

The Fourth of July afternoon, just sniff the air. The breeze not only makes the flags up and down the street flutter, it wafts in the tantalizing perfume of outdoor grills, as Decatur County, Southwest Georgia, and all America celebrates the American Birthday will an All-American picnic.

I know what will be sizzling on our grill. It'll be the same as every year—frankfurters, wieners, coney island—any way you call it, it's the All-American meal. Hot dogs and all the fixings.

I'm not alone in thinking of these as a quintessential American food.

Way back in 1939, the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had some mighty important guests—King George VI of England and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (the much loved "Queen Mum"). What to serve these important guests? Even though it was June, the traditional turkey and cranberry sauce made the menu with strawberry shortcake for dessert. But something was missing. Bingo! The Roosevelts ordered up a bunch of Nathan's hot dogs to add the special touch. It was so special that it made the front page of The New York Times.

Some folks thought it was undignified and protested. But not the king. He asked for seconds.

We're not the only folks to love hot dogs. In Spain the order is for "perrito caliente," in Italy "cane caldo," in Paris and in Berlin it's "Heiesser Hund." It's a hot dog.

But like most American people, the American dog has a long history from all over. The first mention in literature of a sausage being roasted over a fire is in Homer's Odyssey 'way back around 850 B.C. It shows up in accounts or Roman bashes and at least two cities have given it a local name and claim it as their own—Frankfort, Germany, and Vienna, Austria; hence "frankfurter" and "weiner." Three cities, if you count Coney Island, New York.

Although there is dispute, it was probably in the pushcarts on the streets of New York that the sausage in a bun made its American debut. One story goes that an employee of one of the pushcart companies quit his job; he thought he could do better. With his wife Ida, Nathan Handwerker set up shop in the carnival atmosphere of nearby Coney Island. The legend continues that he borrowed his start-up from famous customers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante, and that one of the first waitresses was Clara Bowtinelli, later known as Clara Bow.

The name of that company? Nathan's Famous. Yes, the very same hot dogs that President Roosevelt offered the King and Queen of England.

Not everyone agrees with me about hot dogs being the best Fourth of July meal. They vote for hamburgers, and done up just right hamburgers give hot dogs a run for the money. But wait! How can hamburgers be the All-American food when they're named for a town in Germany?

Again, there are lots of stories. One claims that it was just about the time of the Declaration of Independence when Germany had the largest ports in Europe and lots of trade with New York. That meant lots of German sailors, homesick German sailors in our biggest port, New York.

Enterprising innkeepers along the harbor began to promise meat cooked "in the Hamburg style." German sailors loved them. So did the Americans. They've been an American favorite about as long as we've been a nation.

They've definitely been served at the White House. The 34th president, who also bore a German name, Dwight David Eisenhower liked to relax by donning a chef's hat and grilling hamburgers on the Truman balcony on long Washington summer evenings.

If you are serving burgers, then you may be cooking up their natural go-together—fries.

French fries. Now how can french fries be All American? Relax. It's only a name. Remember, potatoes were in the New World long before the European explorers arrived. When these adventurers reached the high Andes searching for gold, they found something better—the potato. They packed some up and took them home, where someone thought of frying them. But who? In Europe, it's generally accepted that the recipe was created in Belgium.

Then why do we call them french fries? Leave it to our third President, Thomas Jefferson, who brought home a recipe from one of his sojourns in France. In his own handwriting (and in French) is a recipe for potatoes "fried in the French manner."

Probably most of us will douse our fries with ketchup. Not the fishy, vinegary concoction of its first known use in China, but the thick, rich tomatoey sauce in a bottle. And, no surprise, there's a presidential tale about ketchup.

Our 37th president loved it, but not on his fries. No, Richard Nixon was known for his peculiar habit of pouring it over his cottage cheese.

There are lots of All-American foods. Some, though, are more popular in a region. This will be my 20th Bainbridge Fourth of July. We have a custom here that I didn't even know about over in Texas. While the coals are coming to the perfect hot dog grilling grayness, we'll sit on the front swing, watch the cars go by and share a bowl or two of that great Georgia delicacy, boiled green peanuts.

Now what president does this make you think of? Why the 39th, and Jimmy Carter is probably up the road in Plains enjoying this favorite dish for his holiday.

My first summer in Georgia a new friend gave me the recipe. Here's the way Mavis Phillips over in Colquitt told me to do it.

Boiled Green Peanuts
Cover the green peanuts with water in a big soup pot. Add 'way too much salt and boil 'em 'way too long. They'll be perfect.

Believe her, they will.

Mavis makes a lot while the peanuts are fresh and freezes them for happy snacking all year.

I know it's summer and too hot to think about cooking and pots of boiling grease. But I am. I've heard some fascinating stories about the fall ritual of hog killings out on the farm. Do you have some memories that you would share with me?

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network