Jul 042021

Today is Independence Day in the United States, one of the big holidays of the summer sandwiched between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September.  July 4th is notable for three things: town parades, backyard barbecues, and evening fireworks.  Wherever I lived in the U.S. I had access to all three, and got involved in various ways over the years.  Sometimes I simply watched a local parade for no other reason than that I love a parade, sometimes I was in one with my fire company, and sometimes my son was playing in the town band. I’ll talk more about barbecues at the end. The endless production of hot dogs and hamburgers on propane grills that is the typical fare for most people was never my thing.  I was more inclined to build a giant fire and use the coals for something a great deal more adventurous.  Personal fireworks were illegal in New York, so attending a local town display was more common for us – although there were ways around the ban which I worked on once in a while.  All reasonably enjoyable even though this was not a tradition I grew up with, so it did not thoroughly resonate with me.

I have celebrated a great many national days in this blog over the years – almost all of them associated with a significant anniversary, such as the date on which a nation was formally separated from its colonial master (perhaps Spain, or France, or England).  The 4th of July is not especially noteworthy in US history.  The Declaration of Independence was generally approved (with reservations) by the Continental Congress on July 2nd, 1776, by which time the colonies were already at war with Britain. The Revolutionary War began on April 19th,1775 and concluded on September 3rd, 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The original Declaration contained the following savage condemnation of slavery written by Thomas Jefferson:

He [George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people [slaves] to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

The Southern states objected to this provision in the Declaration, holding up full congressional approval for two days.  John Adams had written to his wife, Abigail:

The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Generally accurate, but off by two days. Whether anyone actually signed the Declaration on July 4th is still debated.  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all later claimed that they did, but the formal signing took place on August 2nd.

On July 4th, 1777, thirteen gunshots were fired in salute, once at morning and once again as evening fell,in Bristol, Rhode Island. An article in the July 18, 1777 issue of The Virginia Gazette noted a celebration in Philadelphia: an official dinner for the Continental Congress, toasts, 13-gun salutes, speeches, prayers, music, parades, troop reviews, and fireworks. Ships in port were decked with red, white, and blue bunting.

In 1778, from his headquarters at Ross Hall, near New Brunswick, New Jersey, General George Washington marked July 4th with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute.

In 1779, July 4th fell on a Sunday. The holiday was celebrated on Monday, July 5th.

In 1781, the Massachusetts General Court became the first state legislature to recognize July 4th as a state celebration.

In 1870, the U.S. Congress made Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees.

In 1938, Congress changed Independence Day to a paid federal holiday.


So, let’s talk about backyard barbecues. I’m not opposed to hamburgers and hot dogs, but there are plenty of alternatives for a change of pace.  I was often inclined to grill chicken pieces that had been marinated in a hot sauce.  A more participatory approach is to assemble the ingredients for vegetable skewers for grilling and let guests assemble them themselves.  Prepare bowls of chunks of corn, zucchini, bell pepper, onion, mushroom, etc. (see photo), have a set of skewers handy, and let guests build their own to suit their tastes.  The vegetables are perfectly fine for grilling plain, but you can also marinate them in olive oil plus fresh herbs ahead of time if you want to perk things up a bit.  These vegetables cook fairly quickly, and you need to turn the skewers regularly so that they cook evenly.  Serve with crusty bread (which can be toasted on the grill) and a variety of salads – including potato salad, mixed tomatoes and onions, and leafy greens.  If you are a confirmed carnivore, I’d suggest lamb chops as a change from hamburgers.




Dec 152015


On this date in 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution officially became effective, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment that prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. The Twenty-first Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933. It is unique among the 27 amendments of the U.S. Constitution for being the only one to repeal a prior amendment and to have been ratified by state ratifying conventions rather than by state legislatures.

The text is as follows:

Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.


The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution had ushered in a period known as Prohibition, during which the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal. Passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 was the crowning achievement of the temperance movement, but it soon proved highly unpopular. In my opinion, Prohibition transformed not only the culture of drinking in the US, but also the nature of crime. Furthermore it attempted to legislate private moral values, and therefore pit ordinary people against the government, and destroyed tens of thousands of previously legitimate businesses. It was an unmitigated disaster whose lessons ought to have been learned, but, sadly have not. There are no end of victimless crimes on the books – smoking marijuana, prostitution, pornography, etc etc. I don’t subscribe to any of them, and obviously they need to be regulated to prevent harm to certain groups such as minors. But by making them illegal they are simply forced underground and promote crime and violence.


During Prohibition, the production, importation, and distribution of alcoholic beverages — once the province of legitimate business — were taken over by criminal gangs, which fought each other for market control in violent confrontations, including murder. Major gangsters, such as Omaha’s Tom Dennison and Chicago’s Al Capone, became rich and were admired locally and nationally. Enforcement was difficult because the gangs became so rich they were often able to bribe underpaid and understaffed law enforcement personnel and pay for expensive lawyers. Many citizens were sympathetic to bootleggers, and respectable citizens were lured by the romance of illegal speakeasies, also called “blind tigers”. The loosening of social morals during the 1920s included popularizing the cocktail and the cocktail party among higher socio-economic groups. Those inclined to help authorities were often intimidated, even murdered. In several major cities — notably those that served as major points of liquor importation (including Chicago and Detroit) — gangs wielded significant political power. A Michigan State Police raid on Detroit’s Deutsches Haus once netted the mayor, the sheriff, and a local congressman.

Prohibition came into force at midnight on January 17, 1920, and the first documented infringement of the Volstead Act (a refinement of the Eighteenth Amendment) occurred in Chicago on January 17 at 12:59 a.m. According to police reports, six armed men stole $100,000 worth of “medicinal” whiskey from two freight train cars. This trend in bootlegging liquor created a domino effect, with criminals across the United States. Some gang leaders were stashing liquor months before the Volstead Act was enforced. The ability to sustain a lucrative business in bootlegging liquor was largely helped by the minimal police surveillance at the time. There were only 134 agents designated by the Prohibition Unit to cover all of Illinois, Iowa, and parts of Wisconsin. According to Charles C. Fitzmorris, Chicago’s Chief of Police during the beginning of the Prohibition period: “Sixty percent of my police [were] in the bootleg business.”


Crime rates soared under Prohibition as gangsters, such as Chicago’s Al Capone, became rich from a profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol. The federal government was incapable of stemming the tide: enforcement of the Volstead Act proved to be a nearly impossible task and corruption was rife among law enforcement agencies. In 1932, wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. stated in a letter:

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

As more and more citizens opposed the Eighteenth Amendment, a political movement grew for its repeal. However, repeal was complicated by grassroots politics. Although the U.S. Constitution provides two methods for ratifying constitutional amendments, only one method had been used until that time; and that was for ratification by the state legislatures of three-fourths of the states. However, the wisdom of the day was that the lawmakers of many states were either beholden to or simply fearful of the temperance lobby. For that reason, when Congress formally proposed the repeal of Prohibition on February 20, 1933 (with the requisite two-thirds having voted in favor in each house; 63 to 21 in the United States Senate and 289 to 121 in the United States House of Representatives), it chose the other ratification method established by Article V, that being via state conventions. The Twenty-first Amendment is the only constitutional amendment ratified by state conventions rather than by the state legislatures.


The Congress proposed the Twenty-first Amendment on February 20, 1933. The proposed amendment was adopted on December 5, 1933. It is the only amendment to have been ratified by state ratifying conventions, specially selected for the purpose. All other amendments have been ratified by state legislatures. It is also the only amendment that was approved for the explicit purpose of repealing a previously existing amendment to the Constitution. The Twenty-first Amendment ending national prohibition became officially effective on December 15, though people started drinking openly before that date.

Although the Twenty-first Amendment legalized sale and consumption of alcohol on a federal level, Section 2 of the Amendment gave states essentially absolute control over alcoholic beverages, and many U.S. states still remained “dry” (with state prohibition of alcohol) long after its ratification. Mississippi was the last, remaining dry until 1966; Kansas continued to prohibit public bars until 1987. Many states now delegate the authority over alcohol granted to them by this Amendment to their municipalities or counties (or both), which has led to many lawsuits over First Amendment rights when local governments have tried to revoke liquor licenses. Here’s a map of the US indicating “wet” (blue), “dry” (red), and “partially dry” (yellow) counties:


So, to a degree, Prohibition still exists locally in the US, as many tourists come to discover. My favorite paradox arising from this situation is the case of Jack Daniel’s distillery, situated in a dry county in Tennessee. They can distill whiskey, but cannot sell it on the premises (except for certain commemorative, very expensive, bottles). Not to worry; if you visit the distillery you’ll get drunk on the fumes in the storage warehouses !!


Cooking with alcohol is, of course, a very important component of many cuisines. In many cases, such as coq au vin, the alcohol is boiled off during cooking. But there are plenty of recipes that use alcohol at the end when it is not eliminated. A spoonful of Madeira perks up oxtail soup when added just before serving. A classic example is rum baba, which I first tasted in France when I was 15. A rum baba or baba au rhum is a small yeast cake saturated in rum, and sometimes filled with whipped cream or pastry cream. It is most typically made in individual servings (about a two-inch-tall, slightly tapered cylinder) but sometimes can be made in larger forms similar to those used for Bundt cakes.


Many people now make rum baba using a rum syrup of sugar, water, and rum that is boiled so that the alcohol evaporates but leaves the flavor. Not this time. Classic rum baba calls for a cake drenched in raw rum.

Rum Baba


120 g plain flour
150 g caster sugar
10 g baking powder
50 g melted butter
3 eggs (separated)
3 tbsp warm milk
dark rum


Pre-heat oven to 180°C.

Cream egg yolks and sugar. Add the warm milk, melted butter, sifted flour and baking powder. Mix well.

Whisk egg whites till stiff, and gently fold into first batter.

Pour into individual buttered and floured cake molds.

Bake for about 15 minutes (until a toothpick comes out clean). Leave to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.

Turn out the cakes and drench with rum.

For variety you can glaze the cakes with apricot preserves and/or add whipped cream.