My mom used to make incredible potato salad for the main meal on Fourth of July.
She really brought her “A’’ game to potato salad on Independence Day. I don’t know the ingredients – probably potatoes and, you know, other stuff from the pantry – but I know it was top-notch. After a hot, hectic afternoon of firing off Zebras and Black Cats, we polished off that potato salad in a hurry.
Good thing, too, because in addition to being a great cook, my mom believed, absolutely believed, that potato salad left out of the refrigerator would go bad in 15 minutes or less. If we hadn’t eaten it as quickly as we did, she’d have scraped it off our plates and dumped it in the garbage can.
Remembering my mom’s rather irrational concern about bad potato salad makes me think of that Erma Bombeck line. She said of the Fourth of July in the United States that a person just has to love a country that celebrates its independence not with a show of military might but “with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy and the flies die from happiness.’’
Most families can picture themselves in such a setting, I’m sure – especially the happy flies. It’s the American way. It was my family’s way, except the potato salad never lasted long enough to get “iffy.’’
Neither did the broiled steaks that generally were the meal’s centerpiece. Those steaks, butchered from our own herd, were amazing, even for a farm kid who was accustomed to meat and potatoes for any old meal. Fourth of July put extra zest in the steak. Everybody thought so.
One July 4th when our Kansas City cousins visited the farm, my cousin Billy ate so much steak so fast he barely reached the back porch before it all came back up. I felt bad for him. His mother did not. Aunt Jo glared at him in his misery and scolded, “What did I tell you, child? Didn’t I say you were going to make yourself sick gobbling your food like that? Didn’t I tell him, George?’’
That last remark was directed at Uncle George, my dad’s oldest brother, a legend in our part of the county. He left the farm after high school for a college in Iowa and an earned an engineering degree at a time when finishing high school was a major accomplishment. Uncle George dearly loved his wife, I’m sure, but when Aunt Jo tried to drag him into the conversation about Billy’s eating habits, he just laughed heartily and stabbed another hunk of steak for himself.
“Man alive, Henry,’’ he said to my dad, “You just can’t get this kind of food in Kansas City.’’
Kansas City apparently couldn’t give a guy the kinds of firecrackers and skyrockets we had on our farm in Lyman County, either. Uncle George said that half a dozen times during the afternoon and evening as his city kids ran around with their farm cousins, lighting one firecracker after another.
Our Kansas City cousins marveled at how few restrictions we had on our Fourth of July activities out in the country. Our folks had two basic rules about fireworks: Stay safe and don’t start fires. My mom would have preferred more rules — many more — but she went along, worrying all the way.
The city cousins also marveled that my dad could set off half a dozen full-sized skyrockets into the night sky from our back yard. It wasn’t quite like a city fireworks display, but it wasn’t bad, and Uncle George declared, “You can’t see this in Kansas City.’’
The city cousins might have only visited once or twice on the Fourth, but I remember it as though it happened every summer. And there’s this: After the meal, after the hours of firecrackers, after the last sparks from the last skyrocket had faded from the night sky, as everyone was heading for the house and their beds, I remember Uncle George standing out in the yard with his head thrown back, just drinking in the star-filled sky.
“You can’t see anything like this in Kansas City,’’ he said in a whisper.