Editor's Blog: Independence Day memories

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Tomorrow, July 4, is a very special day. Millions of Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate Independence Day. On July 4 in 1776, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, thus launching the fledgling 13 colonies on the road to a freedom the world has never known, as the US became a sovereign nation.

Things were much different back then compared to today. In July 1776, the estimated number of people living here was only 2.5 million, according to Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. Today, more than 315 million people live in the US, according to the US Census Bureau. Meat, poultry and every other type of protein imaginable are enjoyed during each meal by millions of US residents every day from border-to-border and coast-to-coast.

July 4th is special for another reason; it is the biggest barbecue day in the US. The most popular holidays for cooking out are, in descending order, July 4th (71 percent), Memorial Day (57 percent), and Labor Day (55 percent), according to the Hearth, Barbecue & Patio Association. The most popular foods for 4th of July cookouts are, in descending order: burgers (85 percent), steak (80 percent), hot dogs (79 percent) and chicken (73 percent).

Thanks to the US meat and poultry industry producing plenty of top-quality protein, Americans will once again celebrate in style. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the number of all hogs and pigs on March 1, 2013, totaled 65.9 million. Chances are that the pork hot dogs and sausages you will enjoy on July 4 originated in Iowa, the home to 20.3 million hogs and pigs. North Carolina (8.9 million) and Minnesota (7.8 million) were also homes to large numbers of pigs, according to government statistics.

Meanwhile, the total estimated production of cattle and calves in Texas in 2012 was 6.3 billion lbs., NASS adds, accounting for nearly one-sixth of the US’s total production. And if the beef enjoyed this 4th of July does not come from Texas, it might be from Nebraska (estimated at 5.1 billion lbs.) or Kansas (estimated at 3.8 billion lbs.).

And for chicken-lovers, six states combined make up the value of broiler chicken production that was estimated to total $1 billion or more between December 2011 and November 2012. There is a very good chance that Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi or Texas will the states supplying your barbecued chicken for the 4th of July, NASS adds.

One fact puts a damper on the culinary portion of this holiday. Retail food prices were mostly flat in 2012, despite the severe drought in the Midwest, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), but that has been changing this year. Last year, prices increased for beef, veal, poultry and other foods, however, prices decreased for pork, eggs, vegetables, and nonalcoholic beverages. Prices were unchanged for the most part for the remaining food categories.

Last year’s drought has affected prices for corn and soybeans, as well as other field crops, which, in turn, drive up retail food prices. As a result, most of the impact of the drought is expected to be realized this year.

Based on current conditions, ERS's inflation forecast for both all food and food-at-home (grocery store) prices in 2013 points to increases of 2.5 to 3.5 percent. Beef prices increased 0.5 percent in May and are 1.7 percent above last May, while steak prices are up 1.3 percent and ground beef prices are up 1.1 percent. Meanwhile, pork prices increased 0.6 percent in May but are 0.2 percent below last May's level. So far in 2013, a decline in exports, coupled with increased hog production, have resulted in retail pork prices that are well below those of 2012.

Poultry prices, however, were unchanged in May; but are 5.6 percent above prices last year at this time, with chicken prices up 6.5 percent and other poultry prices (including turkey) up 2.3 percent. Regardless of any upswing in protein prices, Americans are expected to enjoy their share of meat and poultry dishes this 4th of July.

Someone recently asked me if the 4th of July was a big deal to my family while growing up—and it was. He also asked if there was one particular 4th of July celebration I enjoyed the best and I answered, “Every 4th of July that my maternal grandfather, Elmer Strong, was alive and well,” as that special day was also his birthday. He loved nothing more than celebrating the 4th of July and his birthday with his children and grandchildren at his son’s small chicken farm in what was then unincorporated Winfield, Ind.—just east of Crown Point—back in the 1950’s and early 1960s. Back then my cousins could see our car coming from miles away thanks to the white dust clouds our auto would stir up while slowly chugging along the long stone road to their farm.

Once we arrived, we’d sometimes spend the day fishing in a nearby creek, shoot at empty old cans atop my uncle’s barbwire fence posts with his .22 rifle—and if we didn’t fish, my aunt would prepare fried chicken from birds that were freshly slaughtered minutes earlier for indoor consumption early in the afternoon. After lunch, my uncle would sometimes give us a ride on his old tractor.

Late in the day after dark, we’d set off some fireworks after enjoying an evening barbecue around a campfire made from hickory branches and bark. We were all forced to sit close to the fire on old tree stumps because unless there was a full moon, it was too dark to see unless you were near the fire. My aunt prepared large bowls of potato salad, baked beans and fruit salad, which sat atop a homemade picnic table my uncle made. We’d roast weenies and marshmallows on branches trimmed from trees and the kids would play hide-and-seek, which usually didn’t last long because it was too dark to find anyone, particularly near the bordering woods.

Bats would routinely buzz us from the old hickory trees and near the fire looking for insects, but they never touched or harmed us. Occasionally, my youngest cousin would drop a hot dog from his stick, which would immediately be devoured by their old farm dog, Fritz, who lived outside year-round in a dog house insulated with hay. But there always seemed to be a soft, southern breeze and a billion stars in the clear, Indiana night sky… featuring occasional falling stars.

Eventually, my family would wearily climb back into our 1950 blue, two-door Ford sedan and we’d reluctantly head back on a several-hour drive to our home on the south side of Chicago with all of the windows rolled down because the car didn’t have air conditioning. I’d fall asleep but would wake up once we were on the brick-paved Cottage Grove Ave. that still had street-car rails near home. I’ll never forget those days.

Although many of our loved ones from that time are gone now, our 4th of July traditional celebration continues. Tomorrow, the latest generations of our families will converge at our house to celebrate our daughter’s birthday (July 3rd) and to carry on the tradition of giving thanks for being Americans---and for being free. We won’t be dining on weenies or marshmallows roasted over an open fire – my wife is preparing Moroccan chicken instead…..another sign of the ever-changing times. Many other things have changed, too—but not everything. I expect our almost four-year-old granddaughter will delight once again in trying to catch fireflies in our front yard before the fireworks can be seen on the distant horizon from surrounding towns—just like my sister, cousins and I did all those many decades ago.

I bet if I close my eyes, I will still be able to see my short but very strong grandfather sitting with his big, white train engineer’s hat on (he was an Illinois Central engineer for many years until he retired...and he wore that hat all his life) and waving a sparkler in one hand and holding a loaded hot dog in his other hand while singing Happy Birthday to himself (along with everyone else), my uncle and several kids riding and laughing on his old tractor with Fritz chasing them and barking frantically, my cousin Charlie shooting at cans on the fence post, my mother and aunt bringing out bowls of food to the old picnic table, my younger cousins trying to catch fire flies… while that old, hickory fire near the corn field burns brightly and emits streams of smoke while poppin’ and cracklin’ all the while.

Here’s wishing you and yours a happy, safe and a very memorable 4th of July celebration.

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READER COMMENTS (1)

By Jenny Herring 7/3/2013 1:08:28 PM
Very nice memory. I can just see that happy family group. Thanks for sharing!