Around the Island

My big fat family Fourth of food, fireworks and more food

My July 4 memories are bound up with a glorious time of year on Shelter Island and a clan that just loved to be together and eat together.

I’d be leaving out an important clue if I didn’t mention that my father was Gov. Hugh L. Carey, an impresario of fun, patriotism, big activities and all he could pack into one holiday.

Any chance he got  he’d start the day by making pancakes, using his mother’s secret ingredient. O.K., it’s vanilla. And everyone would get an individually designed pancake, maybe a turtle or their initials or a silhouette; it was part of the show, watching him pour and design.

They were absolutely perfect, in taste and texture, a standard my brothers have worked hard to live up to. Making pancakes is a man thing — just believe me. And the whole kitchen has to be an absolute mess, and that’s fine.

The holiday would include flag raising and definitely all of us — I was one of a family of 14 — dressing in red, white and blue. We’ve continued into adulthood, the more colorful, the better.

Not a shrinking violet in the bunch.

One year we had some guests staying with us for the holiday, and to accommodate the larger crowd we designed a July 4th triathlon. Divided into teams, we’d compete in swimming, running and biking. I don’t recall if there was a prize, and no one remembers who won, but everyone remembers who cheated.

Our family spends most of any day together talking about food, shopping, eating, then planning the next meal. Somewhere in the July 4 plans, hot dogs will star in the show.

Our house has a super-long picnic table on the porch, seating about 20, and a brick barbecue set into the side of the porch. There will be platters of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pickles, tomatoes and the indispensable hot dog.

Just as important was the side serving of sauerkraut that my father always welcomed with the question, “What’s better than sauerkraut?” We all knew to answer, “More sauerkraut!”

Throughout the day, we’d have conversations about the importance of the holiday, and the people who declared and fought for America’s independence.

My husband’s favorite tradition on the Fourth is reading the Declaration of Independence itself, which The New York Times always reproduces on a full page. There are questions anew this year, in light of protests about inequality, whether the framers of that document lived up to the ideals they had articulated.

We can’t go back in time and change them, but we can call upon our own better angels to live up to the truth that “all men are created equal.”

Like all Islanders, my Fourth of July memories include the fireworks at Crescent Beach, which only in recent years have been scheduled on a different weekend to support the tourist economy, and this year canceled due to COVID-19.

When we were children, my father had bought an old Cadillac convertible and had it painted red, white and blue for use in his Congressional campaigns. Fireworks meant a bunch of us kids sitting all over the open car as the fireworks burst overhead. I remember it as wonderful, and I’m sure that’s just a faulty memory that suggests we had cinders falling on us from the sky.

I do know that on the night of the fireworks, Crescent Beach is as beautiful as any harbor you’d find in the world, lit by the cluster of boats in the bay awaiting the show.

The sky turns from blue to blue-black and the shores become graceful, curving silhouettes. When darkness arrives and the pyrotechnics begin, we count ourselves lucky to be a part of this magical place.

These memories will tide us over until we can safely enjoy the fireworks again next year.