Your Ancestors’ Foods to Celebrate the 4th of July

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to find recipes our ancestors cooked to celebrate the Fourth of July. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

This Saturday is a day for fireworks and picnics. As you get ready to celebrate the Fourth of July with your family, have you given some thought about what past generations ate on this holiday? You might expect that their celebrations consisted of “All-American” foods that we are familiar with today, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, watermelon, and pie.

Photo: fireworks behind the Washington Monument, 4 July 1986
Photo: fireworks behind the Washington Monument, 4 July 1986. Credit: Lono Kollars; Wikimedia Commons.

There is some overlap with our ancestors’ celebrations and the foods of today, but there are others that are distinctly different. Looking at old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, provides a glimpse of the 4th of July menus of the past.

What Do You Eat for the Fourth of July?

When I asked my family what they wanted to eat on the 4th of July, I received a quick response of… hamburgers, hot dogs, and watermelon! That might be the answer to “what’s for dinner” in our family, but historically there are other foods that families across the United States have eaten for their July 4th celebrations.

One example of a Fourth menu is found in this 1963 newspaper column “Recipe of the Day,” which includes baked beans, ham, frankfurters in BBQ sauce, and three kinds of pie.

Recipes for the Fourth of July, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 4 July 1963
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 4 July 1963, page 16

This 1934 menu for a 4th of July picnic has foods I wouldn’t mind having in 2020, including deviled eggs, potato chips, chicken and vegetable salad and cake. There’s no watermelon, but there are watermelon pickles mentioned. (For those unfamiliar with watermelon pickles, they use the watermelon rind.)

Recipes for the Fourth of July, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 29 June 1934
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 29 June 1934, page 11

I think it’s important to remember that what our ancestors thought was appropriate July 4th food may not be what we would consider “celebratory.” Case in point is this 1905 newspaper article that includes things you might serve today, such as strawberry ice cream and cake –  but it also includes foods that might not be high on your list, such as Mock Turtle Soup (made with a calf’s head) and sweetbreads (organ meat). The introduction to the recipes explains that 30 years previous (1874) the day was observed by “putting up currant jelly, while the children were setting off fire-crackers in the back yard.” Some things never change, but others might change for the best.

Recipes for the Fourth of July, Plain Dealer newspaper article 2 July 1905
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 July 1905, page 50

Red, White, and Blue

It makes sense that red-white-and-blue foods would be the perfect choice for your July 4th celebration. My mom was a big fan of making all kinds of gelatin desserts, and those definitely could come in a range of colors to match any holiday. Previous generations also liked matching food colors to the occasion. This 1938 article points out that you should plan a simple celebratory dinner because “formality is out on the Fourth: Color is important and so is flavor.” The article’s answer to a patriotic, colorful meal is two desserts: Cherry Whip gelatin mold and sugar cookies.

Recipes for the Fourth of July, New Orleans States newspaper article 1 July 1938
New Orleans States (New Orleans, Louisiana), 1 July 1938, page 26

I like the title of this 1937 newspaper article about July 4th foods: “Safe, Sane Menus are Proposed for Meals on Fourth.” I don’t know about you, but the words “safe and sane” remind me of fireworks – but it’s a tag line that could equally describe food. One of the festively-colored dishes spotlighted is the Red and White Salad that features tomatoes that are stuffed with cottage cheese and celery hearts.

A salad recipe, Times-Picayune newspaper article 26 June 1937
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 26 June 1937, page 19

What to Drink?

It makes sense that the drink of choice for a summer holiday would be lemonade. This 1902 article seeks to answer the question “what to give the youngsters on the Fourth of July?” It suggests lemonade, but also stresses that people who think they know how to make it are probably guessing. After the specific instruction for making an “always satisfactory” lemonade, there are instructions for making it a “circus lemonade” by adding “pink coloring powder that comes in packages of gelatin or a little currant or raspberry juice.”

A lemonade recipe, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 30 June 1902
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 30 June 1902, page 9

Now It’s Your Turn

How is your family going to celebrate the Fourth? Any special menus that make the day special? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Happy Fourth of July!

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