Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Alternatives to fireworks for July 4th


It’s been 35 years since the city of Austin canceled its July 4th fireworks display, but due to the extreme drought in Travis County, Austin‘s fiery light show has been canceled. Because of the hot, dry, and windy conditions in this section of Texas, the Travis County Fire Marshal decided not to approve any permits for fireworks throughout the county. “We just can’t take that chance”, said Austin’s Fire Chief, Rhonda Mae Kerr. And although I’m disappointed, as an Austin resident who loves fireworks, I’m also comforted, as an Austin resident who doesn’t want to see my house burn down.

So what’s a July 4th celebration without the big bang of those patriotic fireworks? I’ve been doing some brainstorming. I’ve been tracking my memories of July 4th events back to, well, as far as I can remember, and I’ve come up with some tried and true and undeniably traditional ways to celebrate July 4th for those of you also currently living under a burn ban.

  • Grill. As far back as I can remember, grilling has been a part of my July 4th celebrations. I spent several July 4ths in NYC at a party where I was unable to actually see the fireworks shooting off into the thick city air, but still able to successfully grill. An old-fashioned cook-out, even sans fireworks, is a perfectly fine way to spend your holiday.
  • Bake. If you’re hosting or attending a cook-out, summon the baker in you and bring something red, white, and blue to the table. From American flag cakes to red and blue M&M cookies, show your team spirit for America with one of the most popular things in America: sugar.
  • Go outside. One of the things the USA has going for it is the outdoors. No matter where in the states you reside, there’s natural beauty awaiting exploration throughout this country. As a nod to our founding fathers, spend the day outside. Whether you’re soaking up the sun while lounging on a boat or hiking deep within the forest’s shade, you’ll be honoring America by spending some time in its great outdoors.
  • Embrace community. Independence Day has long been a day reserved for community activities. Even if you rarely get out and involved with your community, Independence Day is a good time to start. Honor your country via its residents. Take advantage of the parades, concerts, parties, and other events the members of your community have organized to celebrate this holiday.
  • Dress to Confess–confess your pride in being an American, that is. Red, white, and blue are the colors of the day. Do it up! (And then take photos and tag yourself on Facebook so all of your friends abroad know just how American you are).
  • Faux Fireworks. If you need to have some sort of firework action in your life on the holiday, but you can’t have actual fireworks, then go for some fauxworks. What are fauxworks? Videos of fireworks going off projected onto the wall of your house, fireworks sounds blasting from your speakers, images of fireworks tacked anywhere you can see them, or even a light show aimed to emulate the sparkling rockets.

If you have ideas on how to fill the firework void for those living in a firework-free zone, please comment! Let us know. The more ideas those of us living in these areas have, the more like a regular July 4th this one will be.


July 4th Summer Party Ideas

Vicksburg 1863: America’s most important July 4th (besides 1776)

VicksburgThe Fourth of July has always been an important day in the U.S. It marks the day in 1776 when the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. A new nation was born, at least for a little while.

In 1861 that nation was torn apart by a bloody Civil War that saw its turning point on another fourth of July, that of 1863. On that day the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Union army had been trying to take it since the beginning of the war. The fortified city was the key to the Mississippi River. If the North could control the river it would cut the Confederacy in half, leaving Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Indian Territory cut off from the rest of the rebellious nation. The Confederate west was a major source of supplies and men, especially Texas, which had overland access to Mexico and the only reliable contact with the outside world thanks to the Union navy’s effective blockade.

It took General Grant many months and thousands of lives to take the city. He managed to capture Jackson, Mississippi, an important railroad connection, and then surround Vicksburg on the landward side. Then he launched two massive assaults on the fortifications, only to lose hundreds of men.

Grant was not one to repeat mistakes, except for the mistake of drinking too much. He decided not to waste any more men and settled in for a siege. He kept up a constant bombardment on the city as the civilians and rebel soldiers dug in. Eventually the defenders were reduced to eating rats and dogs. One local newspaper ran out of paper and issued the news on wallpaper.

%Gallery-127185%On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. Their commander John C. Pemberton surrendered, figuring the Union troops would be more merciful on that day than any other. The final and much smaller Confederate stronghold on the river, Port Hudson, surrendered on July 9. Robert E. Lee had lost the battle of Gettysburg on July 3. For the North, winning the war was now only a matter of time.

As the telegraph lines sent the news across the North, there were huge Fourth of July celebrations. There weren’t many in the South, though, and in fact July 4th wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg again until World War Two made the locals realize that the USA wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the nation’s most impressive battlefields. Parts of the city’s six-and-a-half miles of defenses can still be seen and reconstructions make you feel like you’re back in the nineteenth century. There are living history demonstrations every day as well as visits to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union gunboat that’s been raised from the water.

So if you’re not sure where to go this Fourth of July, you might consider taking a road trip to either Philadelphia, where this country was formed, or Vicksburg, where this country was saved.

[Photo of Vicksburg graves courtesy user Matito via Flickr]

Fourth of July travel deals from Viator

Sometimes the best things come to those who wait. If you’re looking for some last minute Independence Day deals, our pals at Viator have pulled together a list of Fourth of July bargains to help travelers get the most out of their three-day weekend. From New York to Oahu, below are some suggestions that will have you seeing red, white and blue without spending a whole lot of green.

New York: Watch one of the best fireworks displays in the country with Viator’s once-in-a-lifetime July 4th VIP Exclusive: Fireworks from the Empire State Building’s Observation Deck. A limited number of tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis to this two-hour, private evening event, guaranteed to sell out quickly.
Washington, D.C.: See 100 of the most popular monuments and points of interest in America’s capital after the sun goes down on the Washington DC Monuments by Moonlight Night Tour by Trolley, currently more than 50 percent off.
Philadelphia: There’s no better time to visit our nation’s first capital than during a weekend to celebrate America’s Independence. Travelers will save more than 45 percent on admission to six of the city’s premier attractions with a Viator Philadelphia CityPASS.
Las Vegas: Hit the highway out of Las Vegas and spend the day touring two major tourist attractions on the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam Day Trip, currently on sale with savings more than 50 percent.
Orlando: Get two days for the price of one at Kennedy Space Center, a short drive from Orlando and the launch site for every U.S. human space flight since December 1968.
San Diego: Tour one of the largest aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy fleet at the USS Midway Museum, San Diego’s newest visitor attraction. A visit to this historic naval aircraft carrier museum is an essential experience for patriots of all ages.
Boston: Travel north from Boston to historic Marblehead, the birthplace of the American Navy. Along the way, visit Salem, the Witch City and learn about the history of witchcraft and the reasons why the trials occurred.
Niagara Falls: Visit New York’s first state park on an overnight trip to Niagara Falls from New York City. Along the way, experience the state’s diverse ethnic heritage and the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes, one of the country’s premier wine producing areas.
Oahu: Take a sobering journey through U.S. history on a tour of the Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri, the last battleship built by the U.S. Navy. Tickets include skip-the-line access to make the most of a day at Pearl Harbor, complete with a tour of downtown Honolulu and a drive through Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific. An added bonus: receive one free child ticket for each adult ticket purchased.
Memphis: Walk in the footsteps of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll at Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland Mansion – the number one thing to do in Memphis, Tenn. Upgrade to the Elvis Entourage VIP Package and also receive entrance to a VIP Only Exhibit, Front of the Line Access to the Mansion, and more.

[Photo by J.W. Photography, Flickr]

Spend Independence Day in a national park

Celebrate Independence Day in the National ParksThe Fourth of July holiday has always been a popular one in the U.S. This coming weekend, millions of people across the country will gather with friends and family to celebrate the day our country won its independence with food, music, and fireworks. It is a tradition like no other, and one that is made all the better when combined with another great American tradition – the national parks.

With the three-day holiday weekend nearly upon us, the National Park Service has a number of activities planned across the entire park system. For instance, Valley Forge National Park will play host to the annual community picnic, which features plenty of hamburgers and hotdogs, arts and crafts for the kids, Revolutionary War reenactors, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson himself. Festivities get underway at 11 AM and run throughout the afternoon.

Similarly, Adams National Historical Park in Massachusetts has a full schedule of events planned for July 4th as well. Things will get underway at 1 PM with storyteller William Hogeland sharing the tale of how the Declaration of Independence was drafted and eventually signed. Later in the afternoon, visitors will have the opportunity to join the second Continental Congress itself and take part in the drafting of that document themselves. Finally, the evening will wrap up with a dramatic re-telling of the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. A friendship that not only withstood the test of time, but would also help forge a nation.Visitors to Mt. Rushmore will have two days to take in that park’s annual celebration, which is always amongst the best in the entire park system. Starting on Sunday, July 3rd and running through the 4th, there will be a variety of live music, and presidential reenactors wandering the park. On Sunday evening the U.S. Air Force will also conduct several dramatic flyovers, including a B-1 bomber. Other events include a flag folding ceremony, a salute to veterans, a military swearing in ceremony, and more.

Those looking for the ultimate in fireworks displays, should plan on dropping by the National Mall in Washington DC. Those that beat the rush, and get there early in the day, can claim one of the better viewing spots near the reflecting pool, and where the fireworks are launched on the evening of the 4th. Starting just after 9 PM, the night sky will explode in spectacular colors, illuminating the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, as well as the Capitol Building itself. It is truly a patriotic sight to behold.

There are, of course, plenty of other parks that are holding their own celebrations as well. Checkout the National Park Service website for more details on what is happening in your area, and start making plans to celebrate Independence Day 2011 in your favorite national park.

[Photo credit: UpstateNYer via WikiMedia Commons]