Happy Labor Day, and thank you unions!
I don’t have a recipe to share with you – as was the case a few weeks ago, the recent heat in our area meant we didn’t cook so much as throw anything that could be grilled in that general direction.
The ubiquity of grilling and barbecues at Labor Day weekend parties (at least in other years – if you’re having a party this year, it involves masks and social distancing, right?!) got me wondering: why do we celebrate this holiday, first signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894 (as a response, by the way, to a huge strike of railway manufacturers, workers, and their union demanding better treatment – this article explains a bit more, including work we have left to do!), with grilled and picnic foods?
The most straightforward answer seems to be that our method of celebrating has little to do with the holiday’s origins – we don’t think much about labor on Labor Day (aside from perhaps being happy we aren’t doing any), nor that many people who labor away don’t get any break on this day intended to celebrate workers. Our celebrations, beer and burgers and potato salad with or without mayo, center around a final gasp of summer glory before the inevitable slide into fall temperatures, which, I guess, are real in some places…
It’s interesting that this tradition of barbecue, used on a day intended to celebrate the people – the work force – is also such a people’s cooking method, by which I mean its origins are multiple and in many ways quite humble. I’ve alluded previously to the African diasporic origins of barbecue; meat can be slow cooked over a fire while the labor force – Black slaves, in this case – works all day.
But indigenous American and Caribbean groups also used this low-and-slow method of cooking meat over a flame, and as the method spread, brought north and west by colonizing and colonized groups, adaptations were inevitable. The British added basting for moisture, painting the meat with sauce while it cooked. German and French immigrants contributed to the mustard-based sauce popular in parts of South Carolina.
And grilling meat over a fire is hardly just an American practice. Kebabs figure in Indian, Pakistani, Arab, and Turkish foodways. Though we usually think horizontally when we grill or barbecue, gyros and al pastor, itself developed from the shawarma of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (right? I had no idea! Consider this a plug for David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, though be warned: the language is not exactly G-rated), tend toward the vertical: a tall spit standing between floor and ceiling from which slowly rotating meat is carved. And then there’s Nigerian suya or mixed grill, spicy with cayenne, earthy with ground peanuts. And of course there are so, so many more.
All of these origin stories, these food traditions and adaptations, have become part of the American story with all its tangles and troubles, as have the people who imagined, cooked, and ate them, contributing their ideas, their labor, and their traditions. So in some senses, far from just a final excuse to cook over flames while summer fades, grilling on Labor Day seems like just the right way to celebrate.