The dictionary tells me that an oxymoron is "a rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined" (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd Ed.). Even better is the original Greek "oxumoron" -- which translates as "pointedly foolish."
Am I just being pointedly foolish to even attempt to celebrate July 4th in England? For what am I celebrating exactly? As a current dependent of the UK, is it not just a little bizarre to keep this wholly American tradition going? Never mind the "oxy" bit, am I just a moron?
Without the parades, the fireworks, and the patriotism, what does July 4th really offer for an expatriate American? I've pondered this question long and hard, (well, at least short and superficially), and I have a very satisfactory answer: July 4th is a good excuse to get together with American friends and eat fried chicken.
I've never had a stock way of celebrating the 4th, but there are definitely key ingredients. Here is my ideal (and like most ideals, never actually experienced): the fried chicken (of course), potato salad, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, cold watermelon, biscuits and peach cobbler. A warm summer night. A dip in the lake. Sparklers. Homemade ice cream -- made the old-fashioned way, with rock ice and a churn and a grandfather. Good people.
If you have good food, and equally good people to share it with, isn't that all the sense of "occasion" that you will ever need?
I don't know when or why fried chicken came to epitomize July 4th for me -- to be its very essence -- but there it is. No matter where I am in the world, I want to eat fried chicken on Independence Day -- even if I have to fry it myself. The funny thing is that I don't recall my family ever frying chicken. Indeed, we were probably more likely to have hamburgers or grilled pork tenderloin. In the mythical days of my childhood, when we used to have July 4th at my grandmother's lake house, I remember having barbequed chicken -- but definitely not the fried stuff I insist on now. If my obsession with fried chicken as the symbol of July 4th is rooted in any reality at all, I think that it has to be traced back to the annual church picnic. Whenever church people gather for potluck, you can always count on someone bringing a bucket of fried chicken. Because I grew up during a culinary era dominated by mystery casseroles and jello salads, I think that I learned early on to make a beeline for the fried chicken -- the always reliably delicious choice.
The truth is that I would never bother to make fried chicken in Texas. I'm not that crazy; I'm not that in need of a 4-6 hour project in which I am likely to burn myself. When you've got Church's, Popeye's and KFC on your corner, there really is no point in trifling with home cooking. However, in the English countryside, if you want to eat fried chicken you are going to have to do for yourself. This year, although I lingered over Homesick Texan's recipe, I decided to go with something tried and true: Nigella Lawson's recipe from Nigella Bites. Her recipe is a bit unusual, but it really takes the anxiety out of frying chicken. Her secret? You cook the chicken before you fry it. To be more specific, you brine the chicken in salty milk overnight -- and then you gently poach the chicken in its milk bath. You actually just fry it for a couple of minutes -- so when the crust looks golden enough, the chicken is done. (No burnt chicken! Even better, no fear of raw chicken!) I had a piece for lunch today -- and even though the crust was not at its best, the meat was still tender and juicy.
I realize that it is a bit ironical to consult an English cook for a quintessentially American recipe, but hey, that's the nature of my life. That's why we drank Pimm's and ate peach cobbler: I like to cherrypick the best from both cultures.
Last week Barrie Summy issued a call-out for favorite summer recipes. I knew that I had to post my beloved recipe for Hill Country Peach Cobbler -- because it is easy, delicious, summery and it tastes like home to me. Unfortunately, I've been running late all week . . . and I've missed the publishing deadline. But just because Just a Plane Ride Away said that she liked it, I present my notion of a perfect summer dessert.
Hill Country Peach Cobbler
(courtesy of Martha Smith, of San Antonio)
3/4 cup flour
dash of salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 cup sugar (plus an extra 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top)
3/4 cup milk
4 0z butter
3 cup sliced peaches
Sift flour, salt, and baking powder together. Mix in 1 1/2 cup sugar. Stir in milk. Melt butter in 8x8x2 inch (or similar) pan. Pour batter over the melted butter; do not stir. Lay peaches on batter. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Bake for 1 hour at 350F/180C oven.
I don't make peach cobbler very often -- mostly because I am the only person in my family who truly likes it. Sigmund never misses a chance to tell me that it is like a crumble -- but not as nice. While I would never disparage a good crumble, I think that there is something magical about this cobbler. I love its silky, buttery texture. I love the way it makes its own doughy crust. I love the voluptousness of the peaches. I also especially love this recipe because of its storied history. Years ago, or back when I was 23 years old and newly launched into the adult world, I had a "grown-up" dinner at the home of a newly married friend. We went to the Farmer's Market on the old Austin Highway in San Antonio, and we bought plump ears of corn, juicy tomatoes, and beautifully ripe Fredricksburg peaches. As we chatted away, my friend Martha put together a simple, but unbelievably delicious, summer dinner: Barbeque chicken, corn, fresh green salad, glistening cut tomatoes . . . and peach cobbler, with Homemade Vanilla Blue Bell ice cream, for dessert. I begged Martha to copy the recipe down for me, and I still have that recipe card -- almost 20 years later. No cobbler that I make will ever be able to duplicate the perfection of Martha's cobbler, but I keep trying!
As for my ideal July 4th, well, it was a bit less than perfect. It was too cold and windy to sit outside, so we had to huddle around my kitchen table. I forgot to serve the potato salad. I put too much butter in the peach cobbler. We didn't have homemade ice cream. Almost everyone had to leave before it was dark, and we didn't really get around to doing the fireworks.
However . . . there was fried chicken. There was peach cobbler. There was champagne, brought by Audrey, and the most delectable brownies, made by Just a Plane Ride Away. And most of all, best of all, there were good people. Old friends and new -- with a foot on each side of the pond.