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The New Traditional Labor Day Menu


Welcome to Fall!

What’s the difference between an Independence Day barbecue and a Labor Day barbecue? Around these parts, about five degrees. Seriously: Why are two distinct holidays held in different seasons celebrated via the same menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, and the like? Thanksgiving has its turkey, Easter its lamb. It’s past time we came up with a fitting bill of fare for Labor Day, one that reflects summer’s slow dusk and the daunting dawn of the autumn season -- while also capable of sating the honest, hearty, hard-working appetites of America’s working class. It must also prove viable in a family get-together setting.

This is not so easy a task. Pumpkins are too halloweeny. Squash, in general, is rarely successful as a party food. Some game animals are killed this time of year, but is Dad really going to stand over a hot grill for six hours as a side of venison cooks up? I think not. So far all I’ve come up with are apples. And donuts. And apple donuts. Actually, I used to get great fried apple fritters and cider at this orchard in upstate New York around this time of year. I believe apple fritters would make a splendid new traditional Labor Day dessert. It retains the patriotic association with Mom’s apple pie, but with a distinctive twist all its own.

You know, it suddenly occurs to me that the baloney sandwich is an all-American classic without a holiday to attend. That’s sad. And what do workers get fed more of than anything else on a daily basis? Baloney! Except it’s not a very sexy food to serve as main course at a celebratory event. But how about open-face baloney sandwiches, on crust-less white bread, with a little mustard, cut into small triangles like at an upper class high tea? Brilliant! This will be the new traditional Labor Day hors d’oeuvre. Optional: Garnish with dainty sprigs of dill.

Everybody loves Brussels sprouts. Or at least I do. Mist the little green balls with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss on the grill. You’ll be amazed at the array of witty comments you’ll receive when you announce that this is the new traditional Labor Day vegetable. Ignore these -- your guests simply don’t know what’s good for them. Tip: If dining indoors, I’d recommend placing room deodorizers in each corner.

Did you ever hear of kasha varnishkes? It’s an old staple of Russian Jews, a simple combination of bow tie pasta, kasha, and sauteed onions. I once worked as chef at an upscale gourmet shop in New York and sold it for $18 a pound as “farfalle noodles, buckwheat groats, and caramelized onions”. It was a big seller. The point, though, is that this is a fulsome, autumnal food, one that would make an ideal new traditional Labor Day side dish. If any of your guests comment to the effect that they would have preferred good old-fashioned potato salad, accuse them, in a loud voice, of being anti-semitic. This should serve to stifle any further dissent.

Let Thanksgiving have its turkey, Independence Day its hamburgers. Labor Day shall ring with the best of both worlds: The turkey burger. An alluring charcoal aroma, plus that of lighter fluid, shall fill the air and lure your guests towards the seductively sizzling patties on the grill (try to hide the Brussels sprouts -- you’ll want these to be a surprise). Be sure to stock up on some beef jerky for the hard core carnivores -- that’ll give them something to chew on while they insensitively mock the turkey burgers!

The menu is thus set. One last hint: Very stiff cocktails, and lots of them. I’ve always found this an ideal recipe for taking the edge off a hostile crowd. --Lee Klein

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Frank Houston

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