If I were asked to rank the holidays my family and I celebrate, Christmas would go down as an easy number one. I have such fond memories of childhood Christmases. Today, along with the reason for the season, it’s the time my family gets together in a more meaningful way than the other times of the year when we gather, and the food is great.
Thanksgiving would rank second on my list because of two of the aforementioned reasons, family, and food. The weather is nice in South Mississippi for both Christmas and Thanksgiving, and it’s during football season. In my childhood home, and today, the meal we serve on Christmas Eve is the same exact meal we serve on Thanksgiving Day.
Easter would land third place on my list. Again, there’s the obvious reason for the season, but the bonus is that it’s spring. South Mississippi is typically waking up from our relatively mild winters and— other than massive clouds of pine pollen blowing across the streets and lawns— the temperature is mild. Things are blooming and one of my favorite dishes, leg of lamb, is plentiful and appropriate. My memories of childhood Easters are as fond as my memories of childhood Christmases and Thanksgivings because of my family situation.
It wasn’t that I was raised in a well-off, upper-middleclass situation. I was raised by a single mom who was a public school art teacher. It’s just that I was surrounded by loving family members, wonderful friends, and great cooks. It’s family, friends, and food that create my fondest memories.
Halloween would probably rank somewhere in the order, more so in childhood than today. Memorial Day and Labor Day were monumental in my youth, but not for the right reasons. Back then, school was out before Memorial Day and didn’t start back until after Labor Day. The days between offered a true summer vacation from school.
Fourth of July has never been a biggie for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud American and am grateful for all this country has offered my family and me. I am glad that 247 years ago we showed England what a true Brexit looks like. I love my country and I honor and celebrate the anniversary of our independence. But I live in South Mississippi. July is brutally hot in this part of the world. I’m not a beach person, and even if I was, I wouldn’t choose this week to go there. I am clean and sober, so alcohol holds no sway over whether I enjoy Independence Day, or not. But most of our restaurants close that day, so it is almost a “true” day off.
I’ve worked full-time jobs since I was 15 years old, and that’s what the Fourth of July has typically been for me. A day off. Again, I would never discount how much our nation gaining its independence means to our everyday life as Americans, but I can appreciate that monumental achievement every day of the year and don’t need beer and fireworks to do so.
During my childhood, the McArthur family always held a huge Fourth of July celebration at their lake house. It seemed like hundreds of people from dozens of families were out there every year. In my mind’s eye I see my friends swimming in the lake. I see myself drinking ice cold lemonade from an Igloo cooler, and watching an impressive fireworks display at the end of the day. That annual event probably went a long way into developing my understanding of community and the importance of family and friendships. The McArthur’s held that celebration for decades. I’m grateful for the joy several generations of that family gave to others.
My wife could care less about beer and fireworks, but she loves throwing a party. I love gathering around a table with friends as much as anyone, but she is an entertaining junkie. She’s has perfected the act of hosting a party. She lives for it and is good at it. Therefore, the Fourth of July is no longer a day off, but a time to cook and entertain. I love spending time with friends and family, so it’s an easy sell for me.
This year we hosted a few dozen friends and family at the lake, and we were lucky to have our son in town from culinary school in Upstate New York. In addition to being able to spend time with him, he offered to take on some of the cooking duties, a task I was more than happy to pass along.
I have been a vocal dissenter when it comes to Blackstone Grills, as I prefer smoke and charcoal to a flat top griddle. But I finally gave in and purchased one to handle grilling burgers and hot dogs for large crowds (and look forward to cooking pancake breakfasts soon). He caramelized some onions for the burger bar, then he and I manned the griddle to prepare burgers, dogs, and buns for our guests. There were a dozen or so racks of ribs that needed to be reheated so we used the griddle for that, too. BBQ purists will scoff, but the oven was filled with blackberry pies, and we had no choice but to reheat, in foil, on the flat top. It worked fine.
It was hot. South-Mississippi-in-July hot, and a 36” griddle at 500 degrees creates even more heat with that amount of surface area. The heat didn’t matter. I was cooking with my boy. Side by side. Father and son. I thought back to when I taught him how to scramble his first egg and was impressed with how far he has come. I am grateful for the dedication he has started to show in this profession we both share. In that moment, all was right with the world.
Cooking with my son may have changed my mind about Fourth of July parties.
My strongest and fondest memories come from childhood. Those memories still dictate my thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Will these current events create similar memories for my son and his future family? I can only hope.
Happy birthday, America!
Cracked-Pepper Burger with Mustard Cognac Sauce
3 pounds Lean Ground Beef
1 recipe Mustard Cognac sauce
2 tsp Steak Seasoning
1/3-1/2 cup Black Pepper, cracked
6 Kaiser Rolls
6-8 leaves Romaine Lettuce
8-10 slices Ripe Tomato
Divide the ground beef into 6 equal parts and form burger patties, about 1-1/2” in thickness.
Divide the mustard cognac sauce in half. Use a pastry brush to coat the surface of the hamburger patties with the mustard cognac sauce. Sprinkle the patties with the steak seasoning. Firmly press the cracked black peppercorns onto the hamburger patties.
Prepare grill. Cook over direct high heat for 8-10 minutes.
Brush the inside surfaces of the hamburger buns with the remaining mustard cognac sauce. Grill over medium direct heat for 2-3 minutes. Place the burgers on the grilled buns and top with the sliced tomatoes and a lettuce leaf. Serve with Dijon mustard on the side.
6 Great Burgers
Mustard Cognac Sauce
2 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp fresh garlic, minced
1 Tbl shallot, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup cognac
2 Tbl brown sugar
1/2 cup Veal demi glace (page xxx)
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbl Dijon mustard
Heat olive oil in a small sauté pot over low heat. Add garlic, shallots, and salt and cook 3-4 minutes, stirring often. Add cognac and brown sugar and cook 5-6 minutes, until thick and syrupy. Add demi glace* and cook until the mixture has reduced by half. Add the cream and cook until the sauce has reduced by half. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)