Digging into the Culinary History of the 4th of July -Part One

Digging Into The History of July 4th Food

This a three part series about the history of the 4th of July. I wrote it sometime back, but the story has not changed much, and it’s packed with historical trivia and info about a different time.

When John Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, he wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the day of the signing “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, forevermore.”

Curiosity about food traditions from the original Fourth of July led us to Lynne Farrington, curator of books at the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Annenberg library has a tremendous collection of rare books on all things culinary. University

Farrington shared the information for this article from several historical treatises and sources, including “Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Nationalism in the Early Republic” by Len Travers; “The Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, An American History” by Diana Karter Appelbaum; and “The History of American Eating & Drinking.” Rites  American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated

Though the Adamses celebrated the Fourth of July each year with enthusiasm, their tastes at the dinner table reflected New England thrift and simplicity. On the menu at their home: Turtle Soup, Broiled Salmon Steaks or New England Poached Salmon with Egg Sauce, Green Peas, Boiled New Potatoes in Jackets, Indian Pudding or Apple Pandowdy, coffee and tea.

As celebrations across the country grew and got more elaborate, there usually was a “committee of arrangements” that had the privilege of drawing up the Fourth of July program. Readings of the Declaration of Independence were very popular.

Toasts were de rigueur, often punctuated with musket or cannon fire and followed by a patriotic or political song such as “Adams and Liberty,” or new lyrics were written for “Yankee Doodle.”

It didn’t take long before the crowds of those who wanted to observe formal ceremonies outgrew a single church or tavern. Each celebration had its own orator, followed by multiple dinners. It has been postulated that this is how America’s first political parties were formed. And it was at these first ceremonies that the myriad of Fourth of July food traditions started.


In the early years of the new nation, the people of Philadelphia and Charleston especially enjoyed turtle soup for Independence Day. Local restaurants advertised the exact hour at which the rich concoction would be available. It could be sampled or “gentlemen” could send their servants to buy it for home consumption.

Turtle meat was also advertised for sale on that day if you wanted to make your own.

The popularity of turtle soup diminished as concern about protecting certain species of turtles grew. Today, mock turtle soup is still popular down South, but this version is made with veal stew meat. One of the few restaurants in the United States that still serves authentic turtle soup is found in New Orleans. Commander’s Palace uses locally farmed turtles.


In the early 1800s, Fourth of July celebrations had spread far and wide, particularly in New York, where the immigrants were celebrating their promised land.

Frederick Marryat described a Fourth of July celebration in 1837:

“But what was most remarkable, Broadway being three miles long, and the booths lining each side of it, in every booth, there was a roast pig, large or small as the center attraction. Six miles of Roast Pig! And that in New York City alone; and roast pig in every other city, town, hamlet and village in the Union. What association can there be between roast pig and independence?”


They say history repeats itself with food and fashion — and cooking outdoors will never go out of style. Today’s Fourth of July celebration still has pomp, parades, games, sports and illuminations, just as John Adams predicted. But the food has become less formal and has changed with the technology of our times.

Cooking outside is still the favorite way to celebrate. Pig, potatoes, peas and ice cream are still on the hit list. Today, though, paper plates and potluck parties have taken the place of. The good news is that even though 225 years have passed since our nation declared its independence, some favorite Fourth of July recipes are still thrifty and simple.

Here’s a historical recipe for Turtle Soup, taken from the 1939 cookbook of the Baton Rouge Junior League. You may substitute veal stew meat for the turtle.


Select a turtle of desired size.

Clean it well and cut into small pieces. If when bought, some of the inside is added to the meat, scrape well and cut small also.

Fry a large onion in hot lard, when done add a spoonful of flour and let the whole brown nicely; put in the meat and let it fry awhile. Add tomatoes, the quantity of bouillon needed, and a glass of each white and Madeira wine.

Season to taste with pepper, a few cloves and bouquet consisting of a couple of bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Lastly add 2 spoonfuls of Worcestershire sauce.

Serve with toast bread.

Next post-  more recipes. stay tuned.

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