Photograph by Jennifer Whitney, NG Creative
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Is it time to expand the Independence Day menu? How about adding a Cuban sandwich: Spanish ham, Cuban mojo marinated pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, and a pickle, layered inside bread, pressed and toasted.
Photograph by Jennifer Whitney, NG Creative

Make Room for Gumbo and Cubans at the July 4th Feast

Google “What do Americans Eat on July 4” and you’ll get a lot of articles from international publications with the standard rundown: hamburgers, potato salad, corn on the cob. You’ll also get staggering statistics: The U.S. consumes 150 million hot dogs on Independence Day. No disrespect to the traditional cookout, but I started reconsidering my July 4 table back in May when I saw the off-Broadway musical biography of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, told in hiphop. More on that in a minute.

Many Americans—not just the high-brow foodies—shudder that the world thinks this is American food. Embracing our diverse food culture on July 4 is both a way to honor America and have a better meal. In a year so different than last—when marriage is marriage and universal health care is kosher and Washingtonians legally grow cannabis in the shadow of the Capitol—the table can display a different American identity.

On July 4, I’m putting Cuban sandwiches on the menu. With the United States and Cuba this week announcing embassies opening in each other’s countries for the first time in half a century, the traditional grilled pork sandwich (a staple of Miami’s Little Havana community that has long been served nationwide) is a must. The sandwich, layers of pork and sometimes ham with Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles on thick buttered bread, became popular in the 19th century when travel between Cuba and Florida was easy and frequent. It’s impossible to know whether the sandwich originated in Cuba or in immigrant American communities but either way, hearty grilled pork tastes more celebratory than a limp hot dog.

Or how about basically anything from New Orleans, where Creole cooking sprung from the mixture of the cultures that met there in the 18th century? Gumbo, the thick and fragrant spicy stew, evolved from combining French bouillabaisse, American Indian sassafras, and African okra when these three groups lived together for the first time in the city. It’s a perfect mashup. For those who scoff at turning on the stove, just think of all the people making chili for cook-offs this weekend. It’s worth it, and a great way to serve a crowd.

And the July 4 crowds do gather around food. As John Adams predicted in 1776, the day is celebrated with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations….” Our food can be an expression of what America is–and what American food is–whether your family came over on the Mayflower or you just arrived. All Americans own our story of independence.

The show Hamilton makes this point that everyone—and every creative, positive expression of identity—owns American independence by telling an 18th century story through hiphop, not the most popular music with older theater-going crowds. It introduces a new audience to hiphop as a legitimate art form. Food is an art and a vehicle for expression too, and when others accept our art forms they accept us. (The best part is the freestyle between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson about whether to have a central bank. You can see it starting July 13 when it opens in previews on Broadway.)

Putting more diverse food on everyone’s July 4 table is a small thing, but as we eat diverse offerings of food we’re reminded that everyone owns this country, our history, and our independence. Hiphop is just as American as the Beach Boys and Cuban sandwiches are just as American as hot dogs. There’s a place for everyone at this table.