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Celebrate summer’s sendoff with a classic picnic

August 31, 2018

Monday is Labor Day, considered by many to mark the last day of summer or the last day you can wear white without upsetting the fashion police. Since we no longer have any back-to-school rituals in our home and we’ll bravely continue wearing white, Labor Day is a chance to celebrate sunshine, friends and family with a backyard barbecue. 

The original intention for the first Labor Day parade (held in New York City Sept. 5, 1882) was to honor the range of skills and industries found in the trade and labor unions. Historians credit Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union, for organizing the events on the unpaid day off, including a parade and picnic for workers and their families.

Two years later, the Central Labor Union designated the first Monday in September as the permanent date for Labor Day, encouraging other municipalities and industrial centers to do the same. By 1894, President Grover Cleveland converted the notion into a national holiday, perhaps as a conciliatory gesture after his previous harsh treatment against striking union workers.

Over the years, Labor Day became a public celebration of labor and industry, a chance for political candidates to give speeches to their constituents, and a welcome three-day weekend to relax before returning to school and work obligations. The highlight of the weekend is typically a picnic-style meal featuring simple summertime foods.

One of the most popular menus for Labor Day centers around a barbecue grill. With stifling humidity and temperatures still in the 80s, staying away from the kitchen stove is definitely desirable. Grilled foods appropriate for the celebration include the ubiquitous hot dog, burgers, corn on the cob, vegetable kebobs and a sweet dessert.

The history of the hot dog is a murky one, but its ancestor is definitely the oldest processed food - sausage, first mentioned in the 9th century B.C. in Homer’s epic, “The Odyssey.” Debate continues between Frankfurt, Germany and Vienna, Austria, each claiming to be the birthplace of the hot dog. No matter which city was first, the earliest hot dog that came to this country was likely the common European sausage.

Once it was here, a number of entrepreneurs claimed to have invented the fluffy bread bun, the pushcart sales technique and the addition of familiar condiments: sauerkraut and relish. By 1893, hot dogs were sold by the thousands at amusement parks, baseball stadiums, colleges and municipal street corners - places where they’re still found in abundant supply.

Over the years, the easy-to-eat, flavorful hot dog developed an unsavory reputation, primarily because of the many additives and questionable ingredients, ranging from meat by-products to high fat and salt content. Today, you can find hot dogs that solved these problems in uncured products from Applegate and Organic Prairie.

For dessert, consider something with a red, white and blue theme, like the buttercream-stuffed strawberries in the photo. You could also thread berries and mini marshmallows on skewers and line them up to create an image of the American flag, or fill a trifle bowl with layers of berries and whipped cream. No matter how you spend the holiday, here’s hoping you find time to relax.

Buttercream Frosting

1/2 C unsalted butter, softened
1 t vanilla extract
2 C confectioners sugar
1 to 2 T whole milk

Add butter and vanilla to a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until combined. Add sugar and beat on low until incorporated, then increase speed to high and continue beating until smooth. Add 1 T milk and beat to desired consistency, adding additional 1 T milk if too dry. Yield: 1 C frosting.

Stuffed Strawberries

12 large strawberries
1 C buttercream
12  blueberries

Trim the tops from the strawberries and place them on a cutting board cut-side down. Make two vertical cuts in each berry without cutting all the way through to the bottom. Gently separate the four quarters to create an opening in the center. Scoop the buttercream into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Gently dispense the frosting to completely fill the center of the berries. Top each with a blueberry. Yield: 6 to 12 servings.

Berry Trifle

2 1/2 C heavy cream
1/2 C confectioners sugar
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
1 loaf pound cake
1 lb strawberries, sliced
6 oz raspberries
6 oz blackberries
6 oz blueberries
1/2 C fruit jam

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream, sugar, and vanilla and almond extracts. Beat with an electric mixer until soft peaks form; set aside. Cut the pound cake into 1-inch cubes; set aside.

Combine all the berries in a large bowl, tossing gently to distribute evenly; set aside. Heat the jam just until it melts; set aside.

In a footed glass trifle bowl, spread the ingredients into even layers as follows: half the cake cubes, 1/3 of the berries, 1/2 of the whipped cream, all the melted jam, remaining cake cubes, 1/3 of the berries, remaining whipped cream and remaining berries.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.