I’m one of the rare New Yorkers fortunate enough to have a backyard. It isn’t much—a bit of brick patio, a patch of grass, a couple of over-enthusiastic hydrangeas and a little stand of scraggly bamboo in the corner, with flowerbeds running along the sides and buildings all around. But it’s precious, and never more so than on July 4th.
That’s when my wife Karen and I pack it with as many people as it will hold, fire up the grill, and make free with the cup that cheers but doth not inebriate (well, not too much, anyway). For anyone who isn’t in New York, this is perfectly normal behavior; it’s what you do on the 4th. For New Yorkers, however, what you do on the 4th is whatever it takes to not be in New York on the 4th. Our climate is a nasty one in the summer, hot and humid, and the city is crowded and stinky and gross and anybody who can swing it will generally get the hell out of there.
But here’s the thing, July 4th is my favorite holiday. In part, that’s because it’s the only one that falls in full summer, so it stands proud, unobstructed by other, lesser holidays. In part, it’s because there’s no real obligation to it, no gifts to be bought, no tense family dynamics, no drama. In part—in large part, to be honest—it’s because you get to drink all day and gorge yourself on grilled meats and then everything blows up at the end.
But it’s also because the 4th means something to me. My father came to America from Italy in the 1950s, and there’s nobody so patriotic as an immigrant who made good. Unless it’s a Daughter of the American Revolution—like my mother, whose people come from Maine and had two men at Bunker Hill. I genuinely like the “Star Spangled Banner” and the red, white, and blue and refuse to yield patriotism to the far right of the political spectrum. I still believe in the promise of America, even if I must acknowledge the many ways we have collectively and individually turned our backs on that promise and are still doing so. But enough of that.
Twenty-odd years of throwing a big party in a small space—our yard holds 50 people at the absolute maximum—has taught us how to make the most of it. Our basic principles:
Guests. You can’t invite everybody. Live in one place for a long time and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a lot of friends—too many to fit into the space available. While we’ve got our regulars, people who have been attending since the beginning, way back in the ’90s, we always leave a number of slots open for new people. If you don’t do that, things tend to get stale over the years. So, if you’re a friend of ours and haven’t been invited yet, you will be. (Oh, and if you’ve been invited in the past but didn’t RSVP, you might be a little lower on the list than some.)
Rain. We throw the party without fail. Rain or shine, hell or high water. We’ve tented the whole back yard before, and no doubt we’ll do it again. The way to get regulars at a party is to be regular: then people can build their plans around you.
Chairs. We don’t put any out. Chairs take up a lot of space, and we’d rather have an extra 15 people than have eight or 10 people (all the chairs we could fit) sitting all afternoon.
Food. We serve the same thing every year. It’s enough work setting things up without having to worry about menu planning. Every year, Karen marinates 12 or 15 pounds of butterflied leg of lamb, to be thrown on the grill and hacked up into tacos. We serve tacos because there’s nothing better for showing off grilled meat, and you can eat them standing up. There might also be some hot dogs, because I like hot dogs. A couple of standard sides and done. Nobody complains about the repetition—it’s only once a year, and besides, they’re there to party, not judge Iron Chef.
Drinks. We only supply two things: a five-gallon Igloo cooler full of Punch (Punch is what they drank in 1776, and if it’s good enough for them…), and a whole lot of seltzer. If you want to drink wine or beer, those are excellent things to bring (people always want to bring something). But the Punch is always classic: smooth, even quaffable, not too sweet and not too spicy or weird; think Fish-House Punch, Chatham Artillery Punch, Quoit Club Punch, like that. When you make five gallons of Punch, you want people to drink five gallons of Punch. And while they would have made it in a bowl back in 1776, America has always been good at inventing better ways of doing things, and there’s no better way than the Igloo cooler: It keeps the Punch cold, the bugs out, and if some celebrant should accidentally knock it off the table, no big deal. I always paste a label on the cooler with the story of the recipe and what’s in it.
Patriotic Recitations. A party needs a focus. For two or three generations after the Revolution, one of the rituals for celebrating the 4th was to drink patriotic toasts, where everyone would drink to things like this, from Bath, Maine, in 1815 (newspapers always printed lists of the toasts at the town’s official celebration): “The Surviving Patriots of ’76—May that sun of life set unclouded which has held its course in glory,” or this, from Norfolk, Virginia, the same year: “The Adopted Citizens of the United States—We welcome them among us, and while virtue marks their conduct, we will foster and protect them” (go Norfolk!). Because I’m a historian, I keep a list of these, and for the party I cut them into slips and put them in a hat; once everyone has been fed and had enough Punch, we stop the party and everyone picks a toast.
But you don’t have to do toasts: Some years, we’ll do the Declaration of Independence, with everyone reading a sentence. Sometimes we sing—the “Star Spangled Banner,” with all the verses; “This Land Is Your Land,” also with all the verses, like that. The point isn’t what you read, it’s that you do it at all; that you do something to remind people that this isn’t an ordinary cook-out; that you’re there to celebrate an ideal that’s worth preserving and worth fighting for, as difficult as that sometimes is to believe: that we are governed only by our own consent, and that our rulers serve at our pleasure.