My Most Ambivalent Holiday
I was raised in a Union family. We checked clothing labels and only bought the ones that said “Made in the U.S.” We didn’t buy grapes because of César Chávez. Every year, my dad went to the Eugene V. Debs Memorial Kazoo Night where he watched a Tigers game from the bleachers and between innings, hummed “Solidarity Forever” in unison with bunch of other Union guys. He would bring home magnets that said “Stick it to capitalist tools” and sponges that said “Wipe up capitalist scum” and t-shirts emblazoned with a twist on Debs’ most famous quote:
While there is a lower class, I am in it, and
while there is a criminal element I am of it, and
while there is a soul in prison, I am not free, and
while there is a game in Tiger’s Stadium,
I am in the bleachers.
My feelings about labor organization have gotten more complicated over the years. I’ve had to reckon with the fact that unions are fallible and that labor history is marred by strategic missteps and ugly bigotry. The current popularity of anti-union sentiment can’t be entirely attributed to Reaganomics and right-wing campaigns—unions themselves bear at least some responsibility. However, that awareness—the idea that little-u unions can be wrong—seems to exist on a different spatio-temporal plane than my belief that the idea of Unions, or Unions qua Unions are good. That thought/feeling is deeper and also somehow before my ability to think about why unions make mistakes or the erosion of labor organization in the U.S. I guess it’s something like an article of faith.
That’s not to say I don’t have reasons for being pro-Union. I think all workers deserve a say in their conditions of employment. I think more egalitarian resource distribution is both morally and practically a good thing (for some of the same reasons that Robert Reich mentioned in his recent NYTimes op-ed). I believe that protections against some of the worst abuses of workers in the name of profit wouldn’t exist without labor organization, like the minimum wage and child labor laws. But ultimately, it’s impossible for me to separate those beliefs, which might be subjected to rational debate and supported or contested with evidence, from a more inchoate “Union = good” thought/feeling that precedes and undergirds them.
Ultimately, that faith eclipses my cynicism about how the holiday was only established to try to placate workers who were (justifiably) outraged about the fact that federal troops called in to put an end to the Pullman Strike had killed 13 workers and wounded 57. Or how the September date was set to distance it from International Worker’s Day, which commemorates the Haymarket Massacre and tends towards far more radical agitation and demonstration. Or how those injustices and the accomplishments of organized labor have largely slipped from our national memory. In many ways, Labor Day itself is a far better symbol of how unions are pacified and convinced to delay—often indefinitely—their pursuit of more radical demands than it is of the victories of organized labor.
And then there’s the fact that it’s also the symbolic end of summer. The end of sundresses and afternoons when it’s too hot to do anything but take a nap near an open window and hope for the occasional breeze. The end of my annual half-hearted attempt to control a small tomato jungle. It is the official point when I can no longer pretend I’ll ever make up for the gap between everything I had intended to do and the summer that has actually eclipsed—with too few meandering walks, too little of my dissertation written, and far too few mint juleps.
Despite all of that, I love Labor Day for basically the same reason I love Thanksgiving and remain grudgingly fond of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and, to a lesser extent, Mother’s and Father’s Days. For one, they remind me to appreciate and celebrate things that I am truly grateful for. And moreover, my primary association with them has way less to do with the ostensible reasons for the holidays than it does with the way I celebrate them: by taking a day off work, getting together with friends and family, and eating some great food.
Like Sunday dinner, taken outside and designed for a crowd
For me, Labor Day food is less about specific dishes than a general principle—get outside and grill while you still can. And while I’m a big fan of all manner of proteins stuffed into sausage casings or mashed into patties, sometimes by September I’ve had enough of that. This is a recipe to turn to if you’ve also hit burger fatigue.
These drumsticks remind me of my favorite roast chicken. They’re marinated in a salty lemon and herb dressing that’s almost like a brine and then seared over the hottest part of the grill until the skin crisps and bathes the flesh in rendered chicken fat. Then, you move them to a cooler part of the grill where they slowly finish cooking, so the flesh stays almost indecently moist and succulent. Meanwhile you can roast some veggies or whatever else you like on the hot side.
Unlike roasting a whole chicken, the whole process—marinating and grilling—takes less than a hour. It’s also cheaper than roasting a whole chicken because you can often get drumsticks for as little as $1/lb, thanks largely to the national anxiety about fat. Ever since boneless, skinless chicken breasts became the protein of choice for many weight-conscious Americans, the more delicious parts have been practically free for the taking. And unlike whole roasted chickens, this recipe scales up or down effortlessly and doesn’t require any carving. You can whip this up in practically no time whether you’re just trying to get a weeknight dinner on the table or you’re cooking for the neighborhood block party, and you don’t even need silverware to eat them. If it’s the main protein you’re serving I’d estimate 2-4 drumsticks per person.
Whatever your feelings on Unions/unions, whatever your current employment situation, and however you choose to celebrate (or not): I wish you dignity and justice in all your endeavors, the respect of anyone you work with or for, the pleasures and rewards of meaningful labor, and a good meal at the end of every day. Many of us who enjoy any of those things have unions to thank somewhere down the line. Happy Labor Day.
Recipe: Lemon & Herb Chicken Drumsticks (adapted from Epicurious)
- one medium lemon, zest (~2 t.) and juice (~1/4 cup)
- 2 T. olive oil
- 2 t. kosher salt (or 1 1/2 t. regular)
- half a dozen grinds of pepper (~1/2 t.)
- 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced, or 1 t. garlic powder
- a small handful of fresh herbs (~1/4 cup) or 2 t. dried (oregano, rosemary, sage, parsley, tarragon and/or basil)
- 12 chicken drumsticks
1. Whisk together the lemon juice, zest, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs.
2. Place the drumsticks in a plastic bag, preferably with a zip-top, and add the marinade. Squish all over to coat.
3. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, or up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
4. Start the grill or preheat the oven to 450F.
5. Place the marinated drumsticks on the hottest part of the grill or on a foil-covered baking sheet in the preheated oven. If grilling, cook until they have a nice char on both sides and then move to the cooler part of the grill. If baking, turn the oven heat down to 200F.
6. Cook until the internal temperature is 150-155F or until the juices run clear and flesh at the bone is opaque. (Some people recommend cooking chicken to 165 or even 180F, but salmonella dies after 30 min at 140F so there’s really no reason to).