col A question to ponder for the Fourth

Americans do have an identity, but what is it?

Here's a question to ponder as you stock up on sweet corn, watermelon and brats for the holiday weekend: What does it mean to be an American?

I think it's an appropriate question as we prepare to celebrate our nation's birth during these challenging political and economic times.

After all, Independence Day is the one day of the year when we should all come together as a people and honor our country and those who've fought to guard it.

But are our Independence Day celebrations really all that American? Pretty much every dish we eat and everything we do on this summer holiday is borrowed from another part of the world.


Fireworks are believed to have been invented in China at least 2,000 years ago, and that country still has a corner on the market. Take a look at the fine print on any of the erupting fountains or flowing candles you might have bought at one of those tents that have popped up like gopher mounds all over town.

I'll give you a free punk (a fuse-lighting device, not an insolent youth with creative hair) if you can show me one fireworks product that was manufactured somewhere other than China.

The parade -- I'll be watching one in my hometown on Friday -- isn't an American creation, either. Early Christians staged parades at feast times, and the Romans are among world powers that held parades to show off their military forces and celebrate battle victories.

And, with the possible exceptions of baked beans (a Native American specialty) and hamburgers, our traditional Fourth of July foods were all borrowed from other countries, too.

According to information gleaned from various food-related Web sites, including, the recipe for bratwurst was exported from Germany; watermelon likely originated in Africa; beer was invented by Mesopotamians before being turned into an art form by the Germans, and sweet corn and potato salad -- or at least the main ingredient for it -- had their origins in South America.

Even the hot dog, the most popular July 4 food of all, was not invented in the good ol' USA. Like bratwurst, it's a German creation. (Here's your fun fact for the day: The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council estimates that 20 billion hot dogs were sold in 2002, 150 million of them on July 4 alone. That means an average of one in two Americans will ingest at least one tube steak on Friday.)

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting that we Americans have so little identity that we can't even concoct a holiday that's uniquely our own.

Quite the contrary. I believe we do have an identity. As a people, we are proud, patriotic, prosperous, progressive, hard-working, compassionate, generous, and creative. We live in a nation whose culture breeds these traits.


Yes, we can be a little selfish at times when it comes to evaluating our place in the universe, and we tend to argue and fume over the silliest things.

But when it comes right down to it, we Americans -- nearly all of us immigrants or descendants of immigrants -- have chosen to live in a country that is the most prosperous and powerful on earth precisely because it has borrowed from other nations and peoples.

We have achieved our place in the world because we accept, even embrace, a diversity of cultures, ideas, lifestyles -- even cuisine.

What does it mean to be an American? It means that you have chosen to live in a country that is culturally and geographically diverse. It means that you embrace the amalgamation of ideas, concepts and philosophies that keep us strong. It means that you value democracy and freedom. It means you love your country, warts and all.

It means that when an American flag, the symbol of our country, is carried by in a parade that you will rise in reverent attention -- and know why you're standing.

Greg Sellnow's columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at

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