When I was child growing up on the south side of Chicago, much of my summertime fun was spent at either family cookouts or summer block parties. Having now lived abroad for almost 20 years, increasingly, I realize just how much I miss this part of my life. And, I regret my children missing out on all of the memories and fun.
Summer Holidays Memories
For many American expats, the ultimate summer holiday is the Fourth of July. However, for me, it’s actually Labor Day, maybe because its arrival signals the end of the summer fun. No longer can you pretend that a new school year or work will not be in full swing on the following day.
During my childhood, Labor Day was almost always spent at the house of my mother’s cousin, Clarence. He held annual family cookouts on two holidays: Memorial Day (last Monday in May) and on Labor Day (first Monday in September). Sometimes, it would take him two weeks to prepare for these gatherings.
Clarence also was a man who could hold a grudge for an extremely long time. If for some inexplicable reason you missed either occasion, you could expect to receive the silent treatment from him until the next available holiday. Once, my mother missed the Labor Day celebration because she wanted an extra day of rest before returning to work. Cousin Clarence was having none of it. He refused to speak to my mother for eight months. Given the fact that they spoke by telephone at least once per week, his silence meant he took her absence seriously. Then just like that in May, he called and said, “Hey, Chick, are you coming and what are you bringing?” When she arrived at the cookout with a case of pop and a lemon icebox pie, all was forgiven.
Need a chilled soup to cool down your taste buds?
What made these holidays so special?
It wasn’t just discovering my mother’s hidden baseball talents (she was a great hitter) or that she could jump double Dutch. It wasn’t just seeing family and having the elders remind us younger kids that we were all family, or needing to commit to memory how we were all related and never forgetting. It wasn’t just discovering that sometimes strangers showed up “pretending” to be family members just to get a free plate of barbecue. It wasn’t just because the barbecue sauce was so hot that it made your fingers tingle. Or, even the fact that the barbecue sauce would be slathered on almost every conceivable dish – from grilled ribs, chicken, sausage and fish to spaghetti and baked beans. And it wasn’t how many gallons of drinks (water, pop, juice and strong spirits) that the grown-ups brought – anything to quench thirst and to extinguish the fire in our mouths, along with other foods like potato salad, slaw, various bean salads, cakes and pies. It wasn’t just about watching our cousins pair up and play bid whist or dominoes or UNO. It wasn’t about chasing lightning bugs after dark with your cousins. It was about ALL of these things.
But, it was also about the music – incredible music so memorable that whenever I hear it, I’m instantly transported back in time. Whenever I hear it, I know exactly how old I was when I heard it, what I was doing and who I was with.
Simply Souperlicious: Kitchen Music – Labor Day 2020
Music has always been a constant in our home. Even now, whenever I talk to my brothers, we speak in code, often quoting obscure lyrics from deep tracks on famous and not-so-famous albums alike. The genre of music is inconsequential to us because we grew up listening to almost everything. It’s a tradition that we’ve all managed to pass down to our own children.
So, for me no holiday would be right without music. Yes, even though it will not be Labor Day here in Switzerland, and I will have to go to work, I will still prepare my favorite cookout food anyway. I do it so that foods that I associate with my childhood, my “American-ness” can be passed down to my own children. But most importantly, I play the music so that I miss my extended family and friends a whole lot less.
So, here’s my playlist for Labor Day. A little kitchen music for those families that must celebrate the holidays at a distance, and also for our essential workers who could stand some upbeat encouragement. If you’re in the kitchen today preparing food (both with your family present or at a distance), or honoring those who have left us, put this music on and dance like nobody’s watching.
Happy Labor Day, and in the famous words of the great Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On!”