Today, the first Monday in September, is Labor Day in the United States and Canada. Ostensibly it honors the North American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of their countries. Nowadays, however, the trade union and labor movement ties are relatively week, but the day makes a three-day weekend which people use as a last hurrah of summer.
Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists in the US (where I will focus) proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor. “Labor Day” was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, which organized the first parade in New York City. By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty U.S. states officially celebrated Labor Day.
In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed a Labor Day holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York. Some maintain that Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor put forward the first proposal in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labour festival held in Toronto in Canada. In 1887 Oregon became the first state of the United States to make Labor Day an official public holiday.
Following the deaths of workers at the hands of United States Army and United States Marshals Service during the Pullman Strike of 1894, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law six days after the end of the strike. Cleveland supported the creation of the national holiday in an attempt to shore up support among trade unions following the Pullman Strike. The date of May 1 was an alternative date, celebrated then (and now) as International Workers Day, but President Cleveland was concerned that observance of Labor Day on May 1 would encourage Haymarket-style protests and would strengthen socialist and anarchist movements that, though distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Affair on International Workers’ Day.
The form for the celebration of Labor Day was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday: A street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” followed by a festival for the workers and their friends and families. This became the pattern for Labor Day celebrations. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the civil significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the Labor movement.
Nowadays most of the overtly labor and union activities are muted in the US, and the day is seen primarily as a time for family gatherings. When I began working as a professor in New York in 1980 I was expected to work on Labor Day because students moved into the dormitories over the weekend and needed advising before commencing classes after Labor Day. This practice did not sit well with the faculty, especially in the Social Sciences – many of whom simply refused to work that day. The problem was solved about 10 years later when the university moved the start of term to the end of August, which allowed Labor Day to be a proper holiday for everyone.
Family barbecues and picnics are the order of the day. I always got a bit tired of big gatherings that tended to feature the same cast of characters year after year – hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and beans. People in the US have a bad habit of looking down their noses at UK cuisine whilst overlooking the numbingly bland and repetitive aspects of their own cooking. For me, Labor Day was an opportunity to build a big blaze in my fire pit and grill or roast whatever I felt like.
Roasted corn on the cob was always a big family favorite to complement meats and other vegetables. If you want to be dead simple and lazy, leave the cobs unshucked, remove as much tassel as you can without breaking the husk, and whack the cobs on a grill over your fire until the husks are charred and the insides are steaming. It’s best to place the cobs over medium heat for this. When cooked just shuck and enjoy.
If you want to have a bit more finesse, and less mess, shuck the corn cobs and wrap them in heavy aluminum foil along with a knob of butter. Then grill them in the same manner. Either way, the cobs will char a little, adding to the flavor. Cooking times vary, but usually 25 minutes are sufficient if you have a steady fire going. With a foil wrapping you can check regularly before serving by opening the foil just a crack. Make sure you rotate all the cobs periodically so that cooking is even.
Either way, serve the cobs with extra butter, and a salt shaker for those who want it.