Memorial Day – more than just barbecues and family reunions

When I think of Memorial Day, the beginning of summertime with barbecues, picnics and outdoor gatherings springs to mind. Many families have family reunions at this time of year, too. But Memorial Day is actually so much more than just a chance to get together and celebrate the start of summer.

Memorial Day is the last Monday of May, and is a day to honor the men and women who have died while serving in the military. The exact origin of Memorial Day isn’t too clear. After the Civil War, Memorial Day was a day to honor the fallen soldiers of that battle. After World War I, Memorial Day became a day to honor all fallen soldiers of American wars. Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1971.  In rural America, this day was used for cleaning cemeteries and decorating graves, usually late in summer. Over time, It became a day for families to gather.

Poppy flowers have become a symbol of Memorial Day, and you’ll often see folks wearing a poppy to honor those lost in American wars. Red field poppies were the first plants to grow in the battlefields after World War I. Seeds scattered by the wind sat dormant, only to germinate when the ground is disturbed… and the ground was disturbed by the brutal ground battles of the war. On Memorial Day, poppies are symbolic of new life and recovery, and a sign of support for servicemen that were damaged both emotionally and physically.

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I took this picture in 2010 at a friend’s homestead in Boerne, TX. She always grew the most amazing poppies.

When I was growing up, Memorial Day always included a barbecue of some sort. My family was fortunate to only have veterans that survived wars, so I didn’t learn the solemn reasoning behind the last Monday in May until I was an adult and became friends with active Veterans of Foreign Wars. I’ve always loved red poppies, and once I found out the symbolism behind them for Memorial Day, I’ve never thought of the hardy red flower, or the holiday, the same again.

Before I learned to cook really well, there was one dish my mom and other family members always requested I bring to family barbecues and gatherings. No oven was required – just a whole bunch of careful and intentional dicing, which even I, a complete kitchen novice in those days, could handle.

The barbecue hostess, be it my mother, cousins or any number of aunts, would inevitably say,“Oooh, bring your black bean corn stuff!” I had a large glass bowl that I’d fill nearly to the brim with the colorful black-bean-corn-stuff. We all ate it either as a side salad or as a chunky dip with tortilla chips. Seldom anything leftover when the family scooped their to-go portions, it was always better the next day when the flavors were able to really marinate.

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I actually made big bowls of the salad twice in the week following this article. I never get tired of eating it.

While I used canned black beans and corn back then, nowadays I use fresh corn (frozen works just as well) and cook my own black beans from dried beans.  No holiday are barbecue is necessary for this summery salad.

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My Family’s Favorite Black Bean and Corn Salad
(Colorful and flavorful, and welcome addition to any barbecue or potluck table)3 cups corn kernels, cooked and cooled
1 cup tomatoes, diced
2 cups black beans, cooked and rinsed (if you use a can, 1 can rinsed and drained)
2 large cucumbers, diced (optional)
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely diced
½ cup red onion, finely chopped
½ cup cilantro, chopped

For the Dressing:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine the corn, tomatoes, black beans, cucumber, jalapeño, red onion and chopped cilantro. In a smaller bowl, combine all the ingredients for the dressing and whisk until blended. Pour over the veggies and toss to coat well. Refrigerated for at least an hour to let the flavors bloom. If you have any leftovers, this salad keeps nicely for about five days in the fridge. Serve as a side dish or as a dip with tortilla chips.

Printed with the permission of
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