The 4th of July is a huge event in our house. My daughters classify it as the third best holiday, after their birthday and Christmas. Yes, I realize their birthday isn’t a holiday, but try telling that to them.
My daughters’ enthusiasm is due in large part to the fact that our city, Piedmont, goes a bit nuts on July 4th. The day starts off with a pancake breakfast hosted by the fire department (which actually we’ve never attended, but it’s there for all to enjoy). Later, we have a homespun parade, complete with Scottish Highland bands, dog brigades, soccer teams marching, and the Oakland Raiderettes. There’s then a big party in the park with a band, hot dogs and shaved ice. Later in the day, the small streets of Piedmont become no-traffic zones as the majority of neighborhoods settle into their annual block parties.
Each neighborhood’s party is a little different — there are those with bounce houses for the kids, while others have potato sack races — but the common denominator for all are hordes of kids running, scootering, and cycling around what becomes a parking lot of garden chairs in the road filled with adults of all ages. Some may think our parties are a bit hokey, and they may be right, but there’s really something to be said for breaking bread (or rather a hot dog roll) with your neighbors at least once a year.
My favorite part, however, is that there is serious food to be had. Although the parties offer the standard hamburgers, hot dogs, and veggie burgers you see throughout America on July 4th, this is by and large a potluck affair where every family brings a dish. I love scoping out the tables to see what everyone has brought. Sure, some people bring the Safeway platter of cut fruit, but more often than not, my lovely neighbors bring something homemade, which warms my heart and makes me feel less irritated later in the year when I hear their dog barking all night or when a buzz saw wakes me up at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday because someone has decided to put in a new planter box (Oh wait. That was my husband.).
As our neighborhood’s party just happens to land right on my doorstep, I’m lucky to have the main food table literally touching my front yard. I love checking out the selection and finding out who brought what. We start with the appetizers, brought by families with last names from A-G. These usually include some freshly made guacamoles and salsa, deviled eggs, and prosciutto and cheese plates. Each year, a mother and her daughters bring homemade lychee, maraschino cherry, and lime gelatin in Dixie cups. I barely know this family, and I’m not a big fan of gelatin, but I admire their spirit of culinary experimentation. When I catch a glimpse of them throughout the rest of the year, I fondly recall that they’re the Jell-o family.
H-O families then bring the salads. There’s usually a great range of these, from Capreses and mixed greens, to taco salads and Asian cole slaws. I find it impossible to choose only one or two and so usually opt for small tastes of each.
Finally, the P-Z families bring the desserts. Homemade berry pies are the real stars here, although I am also quite partial to the coffee cakes with brown sugar toppings and freshly baked cookies as well. Sure, some people bring see-through plastic containers of hydrogenated store cookies, but these are always left to linger while the neighborhood discusses recipes and unabashedly debates which dessert is the best.
I am technically an “L,” and so therefore should bring a salad. But, for many years I was an “S” (as in Santoro), and my signature block party dish was always my peach crisp with vanilla ice cream. When I got married, a neighbor asked me to stick with dessert because she looked forward to eating my crisp each year. Since then, I have brought my crisp, even when I had infant twins and just wanted to sack out in a garden chair.
I love this crisp recipe because it’s huge, feeds a crowd, and is ridiculously simple to make. You will see that the directions are a bit vague, but that’s the beauty of this dessert. It’s something you throw together and then share with the neighbors, much like we do with ourselves at the block party.
Block Party Peach Crisp
Serves: 10 people (or thereabouts)
Ingredients: Filling 4 – 5 pounds of peaches or enough freshly sliced peaches to fill a 9×13” baking pan 1 cup granulated sugar 1/4 cup flour
Topping 1 cup flour 1 cup Instant oatmeal 1 cup brown sugar 1 1/2 sticks butter
1. Slice enough peaches into 1/4 inch slices to fill a buttered 9/13” baking pan to the top 2. Mix in sugar and flour 3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, oatmeal and brown sugar. 4. Incorporate the butter until it is broken into small chunks (you can do this in a food processor, but I think it comes out better if you just squish the butter with your hands) 5. Set the topping on top of the filling in the pan, spreading evenly. 6. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, or until the topping is browned and you can see the peach filling bubbling inside. 7. Set aside to cool a bit and then serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.