The Quiet Fourth of July 1

Every year my wife Karen (her real name, and no, she’s not at all like that and has never asked to see the manager, or even the assistant manager) and I host what we call our “Round Up the Survivors” Fourth of July barbecue. 

Most New Yorkers of our demographic—middle aged, bourgeois—find a way of getting out of town for the Fourth, so some 25-odd years ago we started gathering up those of our friends who like us were stuck in town and looking for something to do on the holiday. 

We lived, then as now, in Brooklyn, in a somewhat-cockeyed wooden row house a couple of blocks from the intersection where they would eventually drop the Barclays Center. Back then, the neighborhood wasn’t much, but we were close to the subway and lucky enough to have a small backyard. Over the years, the party grew, until we were packing in some 50 or 60 people. Eventually, we standardized the menu—it’s always grilled lamb tacos and a big Igloo cooler of punch—and also standardized the tradition that, halfway through the party when the punch had had time to get in close and do its dread work, we would all engage in “patriotic recitations.” 

These could be traditional Fourth of July toasts, downloaded from the accounts small-town New England newspapers would, back in the early nineteenth century, print every year of the town’s celebration of the holiday. Back then, veterans of the Revolutionary War still walked the earth (among them my ancestor Amos Tubb, of Norway, Maine) and those celebrations had real meaning. Each toast would read something like “The American Eagle—Long may we shelter in the shadow of its wings,” or “Our Country’s Canals—may they extend the benefits of commercial intercourse to all Americans.” We’d print them out, whether inspiring, corny or just plain weird, cut them into slips, and have everyone pick one out of a hat and read it out loud, whereupon we’d all take a little sip of punch.

Other years we’d pass around the Declaration of Independence or some other foundational American text—the Nixon impeachment articles, like that—and have everyone read out a sentence. One year we all sang “This Land Is Your Land,” complete with the suppressed verses. Another, it was the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was all great tipsy fun.

But we meant it, too. We might be city slickers, but we weren’t going to cede patriotism to the red hats and their predecessors. We were going to celebrate our America—inclusive, lower-case “d” democratic, and, sure, a little bit rowdy—and hope that the rest of the country was going to be more like that. 

That was a big part of what has always made the Fourth of July my favorite holiday, something I looked forward to all year and greeted with unmixed pleasure. 

Not this year, though. For one thing, our backyard will be empty. No lamb tacos, no Daniel Webster Punch (or whatever other historic American crowd-vanquisher I might have chosen), no patriotic recitations, no tipsy throng of friends and neighbors.

For another thing, America. If this year has done anything, it has made us question things we have always taken for granted. And maybe I need to think some more about that special America of mine. As my heroes; my model Americans, I’ve generally been drawn to the ones who saw where they wanted to go and just went there. Barbara Stanwyck. Louis Armstrong. Raymond Chandler. Patti Smith. Thomas Pynchon. Thelonious Monk. Jerry Thomas. Lots more. Mostly, they’ve been individualists. Mavericks.  

But looking over the edge of my Brooklyn foxhole, I’m seeing an America where that maverick individualism has turned malignant; where it’s aimed not at breaking free from a constraining orthodoxy in order to bring good to others, but rather at avoiding inconvenience and indulging fear and division. 

I know this is a drinks column, and I’ll get to the tippling in a minute, but I’m going to use this Fourth to look for some new heroes. Not that the ones I have are bad, but I think they could use some grounding. What I’ve learned this year is that America needs more people who have a spirit that will go on; that will endure and be kind and draw people together rather than snipping the bonds between them and sending them spinning out into the void, alone and afraid. 

But anyway. Drinks. Without a backyard full of people a big bowl of punch is out, but all that self-reflection and hero-hunting is thirsty work, and its pace is slow. So I plan to be sitting in my backyard, pensively sipping on a Lime Punch or three, as served by Dick Francis, the great Black bartender at Hancock’s in Washington, D.C., from the 1840s until the 1880s. It’s a simple drink, but refreshing and just a little bit stimulating of the brain.

Lime Punch

By Dick Francis

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 oz Straight rye whiskey, such as Ragtime Rye
  • .5 oz Flavorful Jamaican rum, such as Plantation Xaymaca
  • 1 tsp Orange Curaçao or Grand Marnier (optional)
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • Water
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Glass: Tall
  • Garnish: Half an orange wheel, optional

DIRECTIONS

Add the lime juice and sugar to a shaker and stir briefly. Add the whiskey and rum, and fill with ice. Add a little water, to taste: .5 oz to 1 oz. Shake, and strain into a tall glass filled with ice. Garnish with orange slice, if desired. Be refreshed.