There’s nothing quite like cooking on a grill on the Fourth of July. Who doesn’t love the white glow of coals, the smoke, and sizzle? Of course, many folks picture a grill packed with hamburgers and hot dogs, but on Independence Day, especially, the table spread often reflects the changing heritage of America.
The dishes we grew up with tell a story about who we are and where we came from, and sometimes they reflect creative culinary twists when two cultures meet.
I met José Reyes, pastor of Iglesia Nueva Vida in Cleveland, at an annual church picnic. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, on a farm where his family grew plantains, rice, tobacco, and pineapple. He says the cooking and sharing of his community reminds him of his grandmother.
“I grew up with her family. She was my everything, after God,” he says.
His grandmother would make his favorite dish, carne asada—a traditional Latin American preparation featuring skirt, flank, or flap steak that is seasoned, grilled, and sliced into strips.
“I loved the flavor—the pepper, chili, and salt,” he says. It turns out that carne asada is a signature dish with many variations. Laura Torres, originally from Monclova, Mexico, has her own delicious version and even makes her own tortillas every day. Christobel Sorriana, originally from Puerto Cortes, Honduras, and José Alamilla from Tabasco, Mexico, were also at the church picnic. They describe a variety of fun, flavorful dishes they make to share with the group.
“He’s the grill master,” says Christobel, motioning to José. “I cook and he grills,” she says.
José stands, spatula in hand, in front of a smoking grill full of seasoned beef, nopales (Mexican nopal cactus), and spring onions, similar to scallions, but with a more bulbous end.
He also makes a decadent side dish of plantains, refried beans, sour cream, and cheese. To make it, he grills the sweet plantains in foil, mashes them up, and then adds all the toppings.
“I like to top the plantains with refried beans I make from scratch using pinto beans,” Christobel says. She doesn’t use exact measurements, but finds it fun to experiment with food. “Every time, we make it a little different,” she says.
It turns out, Hungarians also have some killer ways to cook over a fire. Rebecca Diaz is the great-granddaughter of immigrants who originally settled in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood, in what was once called Little Hungary. Her mother, Marilyn Opre Weaver, their family, and neighbors would gather around a fire pit for what they called a sutnie szalonna, or turkey roast.
“This is funny in itself because it doesn’t involve turkey at all,” she says.
They would take slab bacon or jowl bacon, cut it into chunks, and place each chunk on a stick or skewer. Guests would heat their bacon over the flames until the fat started to drip.
“Then, you let the drippings fall on some good quality crusty bread, and you eat it with chopped peppers, onions, tomatoes, or whatever happens to be growing in your garden,” she says.
People would often season the bread and vegetables with salt, pepper, and paprika.
You can find this sumptuous bacon- infused bread and veggie dish sometimes called “hunky turkey” at some Hungarian festivals.
My mother says grilled meats were considered something of a luxury growing up in a small Lebanese village.
“We usually used meat as a kind of seasoning, to make everything else taste good,” she says.
They used what they had at hand—olive oil pressed from their own olive groves, apples and pears from their own orchards, and milk from their own goats. Women often sat together to roll grape leaves or to prepare soft cheeses and dried yogurt/grain mixes for winter soups, or kishk.
The way she uses meats today reflects a kind of delicacy and respect. Meat is often nestled between other vegetables, as in shish kabobs, then blended with parsley, onion, and spices as in beef kafta, or made with flavorful garlic sauces and spices as in chicken shawarma.
“I like to use allspice in all my beef dishes and cinnamon in all my chicken dishes,” she says. “You can also make your own seasoning blend from Seven Lebanese Spices.”
She gives me a lot of cooking advice that is hard to document, unmeasured and based on the texture, look, and taste of foods during preparation. These are the kinds of things you learn by doing, and it’s well worth the effort. We bring food and tradition to life by cooking and eating together—especially at a cookout, where being outdoors seems to slow down the pace of life to give us time to savor the tastes that our diverse heritages bring to the grill.