The tradition of celebrating the Fourth of July with food and picnics stretches back more than 200 years. The first Independence Day celebrations took place in 1777, in Philadelphia, when the Continental Congress celebrated separation from Britain with America’s first July 4th dinner. By the early 19th century, picnics and outdoor dining were commonplace.
By the time English novelist Frederick Marryat visited the United States in the 1830s, the thing that struck him most about Independence Day celebrations in New York was the food:
“Small plates of oysters, with a fork stuck in the board opposite to each plate; clams sweltering in the hot sun; pine-apples, boiled hams, pies, puddings, barley sugar, and many other indescribables. But what was most remarkable, Broadway being three miles long, and the booths filling each side of it, in every booth there was a roast pig, large or small, as the centre attraction. Six miles of roast pig, and that in New York along; and roast pig in every other city, town, hamlet, and village, in the Union. What association can there be between roast pig and independence?”
Roast pork is still an American favorite. So are hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and ice cream, among others. In Philadelphia, the Franklin Fountain offers some of America’s most ornate ice cream sundaes in a fun retro setting. What could be more American than their caffeine-filled “Lightning Rod” sundae of a dark chocolate brownie topped with coffee ice cream, two espresso shots, coconut flakes, pretzels and chocolate-covered espresso beans?
When it comes to celebrating Independence Day, hot dogs are just as traditional as ice cream. In an old New York Times column, humorist Russell Baker tried to pin the hot dog-July 4th connection on sheer tradition: “The Fourth of July reminds me of hot dogs because for years I have felt an obligation to eat hot dogs on this holiday. Hot dogs seemed like the patriotic thing to eat.” The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (and yes, there is such an organization) claims that Americans eat 150 million hot dogs each July 4th.
Hot dog eating excess takes place each Independence Day at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn, of course. But the most extreme hot dog award for New York goes to Rutt’s Hut of Clifton, N.J., where the pork-and-beef dogs are deep-fried to perfection. Nicknamed “rippers,” the dogs are then topped with a spicy house-made relish. Guests looking for something really extreme can order “cremators”—hot dogs that have been deep-fried until nearly black. Meanwhile, a different take on hot dogs can be found in Miami. A local chain, Franktitude, offers salmon hot dogs (complete with whole wheat buns) that have found a rabid following among health-conscious Miamians.
Meanwhile, Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Pennsylvania has a menu that boasts a six-pound “Ye Olde 96er” hamburger and a more modest half-pounder. It's topped with cappicola, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and Italian dressing.
Then there are the other sandwiches. Students at Rutgers University in New Jersey swear by their “grease truck sandwiches,” which are essentially submarine rolls stuffed with anything and everything that's been deep-fried. The champ among them is the Fat Darrell, a $4.75 concoction of chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce and French fries on a roll sold by the RU Hungry truck. Hungry chowhounds can choose from dozens of other “Fat” sandwiches as well—like the “Fat Bastard” of gyro meat topped with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries, tzatziki, lettuce and tomato.
Whether you favor the fancy versions of American standards, or you just want a giant pile of meat, there's an eatery in the U.S.A. that'll serve it up this July 4th.