I asked my 18-year old brother what he thinks of when I say, “Memorial Day.” He answered, “Monday off.” My brother is a senior in high school, and the summer before his first year of college can’t come soon enough. For him, at least in the moment immediately following my unexpected question, a holiday which could be one of the most somber is an opportunity to sleep in and lounge about, a cool breeze wafting through the windows, the heat hazy outside.

The graves of service members. Photo from blog.adw.org.

My dad heard the question I posed to my brother and answered that Memorial Day is “patriotism light”, as opposed to the 4th of July, which is “patriotism heavy.” He didn’t expound on this thought, but it’s not hard to understand what he meant. For many people in the United States, Memorial Day is used to celebrate the start of summer, with a hint of remembrance for our fallen fighters. The country’s citizens stake flags around the house, fire up the grill, and gather with friends and family in the backyard, or put on a bathing suit and head to the public pool’s first day in a series of long, hot ones.

As much as Memorial Day is a harbinger of the season to come, it is heavy with the past. Believed to have spawned from Decoration Day, a day on which citizens decorated the graves of fallen soldiers, Memorial Day was officially proclaimed in 1868, just after the end of the Civil War. At that time thousands of people took advantage of it to remember the men who had died for the Union. Much of the South practiced the same tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves, only on different days. The South’s silent protest continued until after World War I when Memorial Day became a day of remembrance for those killed in all wars, not most specifically the Civil War (“Memorial Day History”).


To me, sitting at the kitchen table typing on my laptop, the Civil War is far, far away, a ball of hazy images and feelings: men in tattered military jackets, the importance of the railroad lines, bayonets, grainy pictures of grassy fields, bodies strewn on hills and in ditches. Some, however, have been gifted a truer memory by generations of tradition. Today in parts of the rural southern U.S., the original purpose of Memorial Day comes first. Families gather in cemeteries to clean them and decorate the graves of their loved ones, they engage in religious services, and have dinner, breaking bread in a pavilion or on blankets on the grass.  Nonetheless, while municipal buildings across the nation will lower the American flag to half-mast, millions of people will focus most on this final image of Memorial Days past: food.

On Memorial Day, Americans eat grilled meats and sandwiches, cool salads, and other "summer" foods. Photo from http://www.communityconnectnj.com.

Since my usual article focuses on cooking, I thought I would do a little research on traditional Memorial Day grub, and although I did not find any recipes from the 1860s, I did discover an ample amount of resources for Memorial Day foods that are staples around the picnic table. The Huffington Post asked, “What’s your favorite Memorial Day recipe?” The answers were for crab, potato salad, pulled pork, prime rib, deviled eggs, hot dogs, and lamb. Entrees are grilled (chicken, burgers, bratwurst), salads and sides are mainly cold (coleslaw, macaroni salad), and desserts are refreshing (watermelon and Jello creations). Traditional drinks include soda and sweet iced tea.

Americans are torn about how to celebrate Memorial Day. They can either be somber and patriotic, remembering fallen soldiers with prayer and reflection, or they can bare their shoulders and fill their bellies and dance in a sprinkler in between. But history tells us that the original Memorial Day celebrations combined these two images, making room for serious remembrance and festive fellowship in the same space, praying and eating while in the company of the dead. And it seems to me the way it should be done. There is nothing a soldier would like more than to see his or her family come together in happiness, in his or her name, to enjoy the sweetness of watermelon and the sweet heat of summertime.

Do some scouting in your area for the best ways to remember the fallen and celebrate their service.