The Americans thanked the French for their role in establishing the US as an independent nation. The French ribbed the Brits about being at a party honoring the loss of their colonies. The Dutch and the Swiss were the neutral peacekeepers, and everyone agreed that traditional American barbecue food is delicious. That was our 4th of July party in a nutshell, international and jolly.
It’s actually one of the things that tickles me the most here, to cook for French friends. Their expectations of an American cook are so low that it’s practically tragic. When I serve them French food they’re generally blown away that an American can interpret their cuisine. But this party was something different.
Take the lovely pie above, nominally a key lime pie. Except that there are neither key limes nor key lime juice here, nor graham crackers, so it was a bit of a tweak. It was really delicious, though, and not like anything people here recognized, with its cookie crust and condensed milk-based filling. It was familiar, not too different from a tarte au citron, but clearly something else. There wasn’t a crumb left.
I also made the most classic chocolate cake imagineable, a recipe from Hershey’s, only there wasn’t any Hershey’s chocolate to be found. So although this looked just like, and had the texture of, an American cake, the flavor of the chocolate was more European than American. And the powdered sugar doesn’t behave exactly the same way here, so the frosting had to spend a little quality time in the food processor before coming together into a shiny spreadability. Nonetheless, it was a homey creation, utterly unlike a French cake.
Fruit salad is pretty much the same everywhere, although this one was made with the incredibly perfumed Mara des bois strawberries and so was in fact more French than American in the end.
Coleslaw, on the other hand, turned out to be a major international sensation and was the favorite dish of the day. Sweet and sour, crisp and wilting, it’s a bite of Americana that apparently hadn’t made it here before now.
The French do make potato salad, but this one was pronounced to be totally different, depending as it did on some sweet pickle relish that friends had kindly brought me from home.
But I think it was the prospect of ribs that had really inspired people to come to the party. Ribs have a sort of mythic reputation here, but are sadly not to be found, or not in a form that an American would claim. The meat is beautiful, but the bottled sauces lack oomph and I don’t think rubs have made it here yet. Of course I do have to admit that we needed the help of a French former Boy Scout to get the fire going, an eternal shame for our reputation. And that we only have a grill the size of a large platter and so the ribs couldn’t spend a lot of time there, even once the fire had reached a respectably smoky state. But thanks to this Mark Bittman recipe the ribs were already cooked before they hit the grill and only needed to pick up an alluring layer of smoke before being whisked onto the plate.
Here they repose with the delectable baked beans I made with my favorites from Rancho Gordo, again imported by recent visitors. The French appreciate beans in general, and these pintos were no exception. There’s also oven-fried chicken here, embarrassingly made with corn flakes. I swear, I’ve never made chicken with corn flakes in my life, and I had an identity crisis just going through the checkstand. But you know what? It was really excellent, and I don’t know why I had such a complex about buying them. When I asked the store owner, who was checking me out, whether lots of French people eat corn flakes, she was flabbergasted to hear that we ourselves don’t eat them. “They’re good,” she told me, “you ought to try them with a little milk.”
All of the guests departed with leftovers for another meal, since I’d submitted to the normal American inclination to make twice as much as necessary, just in case. That’s something that takes getting used to for a French person, here where doggie bags are unknown. Some people left asking for classes in American cooking, which I found rather heartwarming. And all of them left wine behind. It’s one of the big mysteries of the day that there were 6 empty wine bottles, and 10 full ones at the end of the party. That means that 20 people only drank 6 bottles of wine, which by American standards is shockingly little. And it also shows that the French too are guilty of providing twice as much as necessary, just in case.
I loved it that we were of five nationalities, and that many of our guests met each other for the first time. I loved it that even though we had two separate tables, everyone scrunched in around one, 20 people at a table for 8. I loved seeing someone eating ribs with a knife and fork, hearing that this was another person’s first experience of American food, and the way that people purred over their plates. But probably my favorite moment of the day was when I heard someone say “I guess American cooking is not just McDonald’s!”