There’s nothing that makes me think of the Fourth of July more than a 45 minute drive down to my aunt and uncle’s house in Hopkinton, MA, sitting on a sunlit porch surrounded by extended family, eating cheese and crackers, and telling infrequently seen relatives about school. Mix that in with two rambunctious six- and seven-year-olds frolicking around in the expansive backyard, two family dogs sniffing around for scraps, and debating whether to swim in the pool, and I’ve got myself an Independence Day cookout.
Each room of the house brings a similar experience. The indoor porch is perhaps the most popular seating area, housing around 20 guests. Some of them crowd around the L-shaped couch, grabbing potato chips, cheese and crackers, and sipping on seltzer. Others stand and hover near the water pitcher or the cooler. Inside, various aunts and uncles prepare the dining room table, which they will soon don with side dishes, burgers, and hot dogs. On the deck, my uncle stands guard by the grill and takes a tally of who wants what. Unfortunately, I no longer take part in this note taking. No beef for this pescatarian. And finally, there’s the cousins’ haven by the pool. Here, we can sit on the lounge chairs, munch on snacks, and catch up on one another’s lives. This, the appetizer stage, in the initial hour after arrival, is the most social. Small bites lend themselves to mobility. I can snag a chip or refill my drink and float from room to room, from inside to outside, chatting with a different family member in each space. I field questions about school, my friends, and my travels.
Everyone eagerly rushes into the dining room for the dinner, or “linner,” phase, as this happens in the late afternoon. Each person files into line in an orderly fashion. We go around the table, selecting from a variety of plates. Most people go for the burgers, but my favorite meat-free option is the pasta salad. It usually consists of cheese tortellini, sweet cherry tomatoes, and a light and crisp dressing—it’s perfect for the summer. The “linner” phase is the heart of the celebration. Everyone settles into their eating spots, parking themselves on the couch, the deck, in the coolness of the air-conditioned living room, or in the warm, sunny poolside patio. I’m usually content to sit by the pool all day, so I take my plate over and chat with my cousins for a couple hours. The main meal is my favorite part of the afternoon. The house and backyard are more peaceful environments, and people are seated, relaxed, and enjoying classic cookout food.
This is the classic family Fourth of July celebration, the one I’ve been attending since I was a kid.
The dessert phase closes out the day. Beautifully frosted cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, blueberry pie, and ice cream are often the first things on my mind upon disposing of my dinner plate. My littlest cousins, who can barely see over the top of the table, wear expressions of delight and wonder as they gaze at the sweet treats. I build a plate of variety, trying my best to sample one of everything. I still sit by the pool, maintaining the tranquility of the afternoon, and watch the sun sink lower in the sky. Laughter and conversation still fill the air, but not as loudly or energetically as before. The baked goods are everything I’d hoped for: a perfect, sweet note to bring the cookout to an end. Everyone knows it’s time to leave soon, but no one really wants it to end. Yet, just as an excellent meal goes through its courses, the family cookout has just finished its third and final phase.
Cover photo courtesy of Country Living