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One food critic’s Fourth of July food memories

An array of specialty hot dogs from Tail O' the Pup in Los Angeles.
An array of specialty hot dogs from Tail O’ the Pup in Los Angeles.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

When I was growing up, Fourth of July did not call for apple pie or fancy berry tarts but rather a birthday cake.

It was for Tio Refugio, my shy, tall and rail-thin uncle whose long, wizened face has always reminded me of Don Quixote as illustrated by Gustave Doré.

Refugio, who was born in a small Texas-Mexico border town on July 4, 1945, was diagnosed with severe autism as a young man and has spent most of his adult life in group-care facilities. He was named after his saint’s day; in parts of Mexico, the Fourth of July is celebrated as a religious holiday known as el día de los Refugios, or Day of Refuge.

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I have many memories of watching Tio Refugio humming along softly as we sang “Feliz Cumpleaños” and then afterward gathered around the backyard to watch the surrounding fireworks displays, balancing wobbly paper plates on our knees.

Our Fourth of July spread was a snacky tableau of hot dogs, greasy potato chips and lots of Mexican home cooking: maybe a crisp salad of nopalitos, some carne asada and always a pot of frijoles de la olla on the back burner.

I once watched Tio Refugio pile everything onto one plate: the carne asada, the rubbery hot dogs hugged by commercial buns, the tortilla chips and potato chips, slathering it all under the bright red cover of salsa and ketchup.

Looking back, our spreads had zero resemblance to the polished, star-spangled Fourth of July photos on the cover of the glossy food and lifestyle magazines. I guess you could say we celebrated with “nontraditional” foods, but that begs the question: What do we mean by “traditional” Fourth of July foods?

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Apple pie with a sweet, spicy glaze.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

My childhood Fourth of July much more resembled this lovely poem by Alberto Rios, who grew up in Nogales, Ariz., on the U.S.-Mexico border.

It’s a poem about “the places in between places,” where the Fourth of July is a day where if your name is Refugio, there will be “birthday fireworks in the evening.”

The poem reminds me that there are a multitude of ways to celebrate the Fourth of July, many of which bear zero resemblance to the Main Street U.S.A. version still celebrated on magazine covers.

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Food publications, including our Food section, need to do a better job of showing us what the holiday looks, feels and tastes like across America, and the various ways people use food to celebrate the holiday and cultivate their own unique sense of American-ness.

This year I won’t be with my parents or Tio Refugio on the Fourth of July, but my husband has promised me hot dogs, ensalada de nopales and frijoles de la olla on the back burner. It wouldn’t feel like Fourth of July without them.

So what will you be eating this Fourth of July? Let me know at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com

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The classic burger kit from Cassell's comes with patties, buns and all the fixins.
The classic burger kit from Cassell’s comes with patties, buns and all the fixins.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)


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