Consuming Country — Food on the 4th of July

We've heard often enough that we are what we eat. But it is equally clear that we also eat what we are. Food connects us with others who eat like us. Take the 4th of July. We recreate our country by celebrating together, and celebration entails eating together. Anyone can eat American. No credentials needed. No language skills are required. On Independence Day, food choice is country choice. We show that we are American at least in part by eating American.

So, what is eating American?

First off, it celebrates abundance. America is proverbially the land of plenty. And so the archetypal 4th of July picnic is a cornucopia of foods identified with that country. Unlike the dinner, with its set menu and more or less formal setting, this culinary occasion is something of a hodgepodge -- hamburgers and corn and pie and ice-cream along with hot dogs, perhaps chicken and anything else someone happens to bring. There never is and never can be too much. We eat copiously to honor the bounty of the country.

Informality is the watchword. Hands remain the cutlery of choice though spoons may be needed for the ice-cream (and even then there are cones) and forks for the pie,. There are no fancy sauces -- mustard and ketchup do the job -- no elaborate recipes or ingredients. Plain food and lots of it is the order of the day.

This conception of the meal as a free-for-all fits American culinary style. Unlike a code-driven cuisine -- French cuisine is the familiar example -- there is no American cuisine, governed by rules about what to eat, in what order and how. But there is most definitely an American culinary style. Plain food takes precedence over fancy preparations. And the plenty of America requires us to do it justice. The more we eat, the more American we show ourselves to be.

Which may well explain why for so many New Yorkers Nathan's hot dog speed eating contest on Coney Island marks the 4th of July as surely as fireworks. Today, television turns mega-consumption into big-time spectacle -- with some 40,000 in attendance on site, a couple of million via ESPN. The contest pushes American culinary style to the extremes. Some would say to the grotesque. The record 69 hotdogs (with buns) set in 2013 is beyond the thinkable.

Yet, whatever one thinks of the blatant overeating, the spectacle brings eating to the fore. It shows consumption as our duty. Our national holiday shows not only that we eat what we are. Even more, it shows that we eat what we want to be. Eating American on this holiday makes Americans of us all.