Image: Beer Barrel Belly Buster Burger, Denny's Beer Barrel Pub, Clearfield, Pa.
Denny's Beer Barrel Pub
A longtime favorite of students at nearby Pennsylvania State University, Denny's specializes in outrageously sized hamburgers. The restaurant's standard menu includes the six-pound "Ye Olde 96er" burger and the 15-pound "Beer Barrel Belly Buster" burger.
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updated 7/1/2008 12:50:49 PM ET 2008-07-01T16:50:49

The tradition of celebrating the Fourth of July with food and picnics stretches back more than 200 years. The first Independence Day celebrations took place in 1777, in Philadelphia, when the Continental Congress celebrated separation from Britain with America’s first July 4th dinner. By the early 19th century, picnics and outdoor dining were commonplace.

By the time English novelist Frederick Marryat visited the United States in the 1830s, the thing that struck him most about Independence Day celebrations in New York was the food:

“Small plates of oysters, with a fork stuck in the board opposite to each plate; clams sweltering in the hot sun; pine-apples, boiled hams, pies, puddings, barley sugar, and many other indescribables. But what was most remarkable, Broadway being three miles long, and the booths filling each side of it, in every booth there was a roast pig, large or small, as the centre attraction. Six miles of roast pig, and that in New York along; and roast pig in every other city, town, hamlet, and village, in the Union. What association can there be between roast pig and independence?”

Roast pork is still an American favorite. So are hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and ice cream, among others. In Philadelphia, the Franklin Fountain offers some of America’s most ornate ice cream sundaes in a fun retro setting. What could be more American than their caffeine-filled “Lightning Rod” sundae of a dark chocolate brownie topped with coffee ice cream, two espresso shots, coconut flakes, pretzels and chocolate-covered espresso beans?

When it comes to celebrating Independence Day, hot dogs are just as traditional as ice cream. In an old New York Times column, humorist Russell Baker tried to pin the hot dog-July 4th connection on sheer tradition: “The Fourth of July reminds me of hot dogs because for years I have felt an obligation to eat hot dogs on this holiday. Hot dogs seemed like the patriotic thing to eat.” The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (and yes, there is such an organization) claims that Americans eat 150 million hot dogs each July 4th.

Hot dog eating excess takes place each Independence Day at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn, of course. But the most extreme hot dog award for New York goes to Rutt’s Hut of Clifton, N.J., where the pork-and-beef dogs are deep-fried to perfection. Nicknamed “rippers,” the dogs are then topped with a spicy house-made relish. Guests looking for something really extreme can order “cremators”—hot dogs that have been deep-fried until nearly black. Meanwhile, a different take on hot dogs can be found in Miami. A local chain, Franktitude, offers salmon hot dogs (complete with whole wheat buns) that have found a rabid following among health-conscious Miamians.

Image: Shack Stack cheeseburger
Shake Stack
Owned by legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, the Shake Shack is a tribute to America's classic hamburger stands. The Shack's nod to decadence is their amazing Shack Stack: An $8.75 stack of two hamburgers, cheese and a heart-stopping fried portobello mushroom stuffed with melted cheese, along with the requisite lettuce, tomato and sauce.
And Americans love their hamburgers to be extreme, as well. New York City's Shake Shack, an outdoor burger stand located in Madison Square Park, is owned by legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer (Union Square Café, 11 Madison Park). A cult favorite among New Yorkers for their cookout-tasting hamburgers and thick “concrete” milkshakes, the Shack also make one of the best picnic burgers around: The $8.75 “Shake Stack” consists of two hamburger patties, two slices of cheese and a fried, battered portobello mushroom stuffed with muenster and cheddar cheese… on a single bun.

Meanwhile, Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Pennsylvania has a menu that boasts a six-pound “Ye Olde 96er” hamburger and a more modest half-pounder. It's topped with cappicola, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and Italian dressing.

Then there are the other sandwiches. Students at Rutgers University in New Jersey swear by their “grease truck sandwiches,” which are essentially submarine rolls stuffed with anything and everything that's been deep-fried. The champ among them is the Fat Darrell, a $4.75 concoction of chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce and French fries on a roll sold by the RU Hungry truck. Hungry chowhounds can choose from dozens of other “Fat” sandwiches as well—like the “Fat Bastard” of gyro meat topped with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries, tzatziki, lettuce and tomato.

Image: Salmon hot dog
Franktitude
Founded by Chilean immigrant Ari Wurmann, the restaurant boasts an impressive roster of hot dogs including Chilean-style "completos" (topped with cheese, tomato, avocado and mayo) and a frankfurter reuben panini. But the item to get here is the $3.49 salmon hot dog with fresh tomatoes, diced onions and tartar sauce in a whole wheat bun. Nutritious and delicious—and perfect for nearby South Beach.
What about the sides? Potato salad is an American favorite. Legendary South California restaurant, Gus’ Barbecue serves a red skin potato salad infused with a ton of bacon and red onion. Another well-known California establishment, Arnold Palmer’s restaurant in La Quinta, California does an amazingly decadent take on another July 4th standby: Their homemade, deep-fried potato chips are accompanied by a rich, highly caloric bleu cheese sauce.

Whether you favor the fancy versions of American standards, or you just want a giant pile of meat, there's an eatery in the U.S.A. that'll serve it up this July 4th.

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