Off the Grid: Sally breaks down USA TODAY's daily crossword puzzle, Firecrackers

There are spoilers ahead. You might want to solve today's puzzle before reading further! Firecrackers

Constructor: Sam Brody

Editor: Jared Goudsmit

April 18, 2024
April 18, 2024

Comments from Today’s Crossword Constructor

Sam: I'm very excited for my USA Today debut. Although I've been solving crosswords for many years, I only started constructing in late 2022, so it's really great seeing my work published in a new venue, and sharing my puzzles with a wider audience.

It took a while to settle on a good set of phrases for the FIRE CRACKERS theme. FRED ASTAIRE didn't make it in, nor did my "short-story" proposal of FIRST GLANCE, FIND OUT MORE, FULLY ADMIRE. I hope you enjoyed the winning version. I wanted to thank Amanda Rafkin for all her help and patience throughout the process, and Jared Goudsmit for the excellent clue editing which prevented me from  accidentally shortchanging Alicia Keys (46D) of her latest Grammy!

You can find more of my puzzles at, including one deemed unsuitable for the USA Today audience 😉 (it's not what you think). Also, if you've ever wanted to try constructing but didn't know where to start, I wrote a beginners' guide, which is linked from my website.

What I Learned from Today’s Puzzle

  • ANA (41A: Actress ___ Cruz Kayne) ANA Cruz Kayne plays the role of Judge Barbie in the 2023 movie Barbie. I saw (and thoroughly enjoyed) this movie, but could not remember ANA Cruz Kayne's name. (Sorry!)

  • ASL (45A: Language in the film "Lake Windfall") Lake Windfall is a 2013 post-apocalyptic movie. The movie focuses on five friends on a weekend camping trip. Three of the friends are deaf, one is a child of deaf parents (CODA), and one is a hearing person. The primary language of Lake Windfall is American Sign Language (ASL); the film has closed captioned subtitles.

  • UCLA (61A: Randall Park's alma mater) Randall Park is an actor. He played the role of Louis Huang in the TV series Fresh Off the Boat (2015-2020), a sitcom about the life of a Taiwanese American family living in Florida in the late 1990s. Randall Park grew up in Los Angeles; he is the son of Korean immigrants. He has a bachelors degree in English and a master's degree in Asian American studies from the University of California (UCLA). While Randall Park was at UCLA, he co-founded the LCC Theatre Company (originally named Lapu, the Coyote that Cares), an Asian American Theater Company.

  • BAHAI (30D: Religion for someone celebrating Ridvan) The BAHÁ'Í faith was established in the 1800s by Bahá'u'lláh, its prophet-founder who lived in Iran. The religion emphasizes the essential worth of all religions and the unity of all people. Ridván is a 12-day BAHÁ'Í festival commemorating the beginnings of the faith in 1863, when Bahá'u'lláh declared that he was a Manifestation of God. This year, the first day of Ridván is April 20.

Random Thoughts & Interesting Things

  • MCRIB (5A: Seasonal Golden Arches sandwich) The MCRIB, a BBQ-flavored pork sandwich, has made occasional appearances on the McDonald's menu since its introduction in 1981. Since 2006, it is generally available in the fall at most McDonald's restaurants.

  • O'HARA (15A: "Schitt's Creek" actress Catherine) I recently wrote about Schitt's Creek when we saw the TV series mentioned in a clue for SITCOM. The show centers around a formerly wealthy family that relocates to a small town that they once purchased as a joke. Catherine O'HARA portrays Moira Rose, who was previously a daytime soap opera star.

  • ETTA (17A: "Fool That I Am" singer James) ETTA James (1938-2012) was a Grammy-Award-winning singer whose music encompassed the genres of R&B, gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and rock and roll. "Fool That I Am" is a hit single from her second studio album, appropriately titled The Second Time Around (1960).

  • REN (28A: Stimpy's cartoon pal) The REN & Stimpy Show is an animated TV series that originally aired from 1991-1996. REN is a chihuahua, and Stimpy is a Manx cat.

  • AVEC (35A: "Voulez-vous couchez ___ moi?") AVEC is the French word for "with." "Voulez-vous couchez AVEC moi?" is a phrase familiar to many folks that don't speak French, because it is a repeated lyric in the song "Lady Marmalade." The song was a hit for Labelle in the 1970s. In 2001, the soundtrack for the movie Moulin Rouge! included a cover version of "Lady Marmalade" by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa, and Pink. "Voulez-vous couchez AVEC moi?" means "Do you want to sleep with me?"

  • IND (42A: South Bend's state (Abbr.)) The city of South Bend is located in northern Indiana (IND.). South Bend is approximately five miles south of the Michigan border, around 20 miles from Lake Michigan, and about 90 miles east of Chicago, Illinois. The University of Notre Dame's campus is located just north of South Bend.

  • AMA (46A: Reddit Q&A) Reddit is an online social site for news aggregation and discussion. AMA stands for "ask me anything," a genre of interactive interviews that are especially popular on Reddit.

  • YANG (57A: Yin's counterpart) In Chinese philosophy, Yin and YANG are opposite yet complementary and interconnected forces. YANG is described as the masculine principle, and yin is the feminine principle.

  • MOMA (5D: _useum _f _odern _rt) The Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA, is located in New York City. This is a fun variation of a fill-in-the-blank clue, where each blank represents one letter. MOMA opened in 1929, and was the first U.S. museum focused exclusively on modern art.

  • ALI (22D: Actress Tatyana) Tatyana ALI played the role of Ashley Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1996). Beginning with the second season of the reboot series Bel-Air, Tatyana ALI has a recurring role as English literature teacher, Mrs. Hughes.

  • UGLIS (32D: Citrus fruits sometimes more kindly described as "uniq") This clue made me chuckle. UGLI fruit, also known as the Jamaican tangelo or (as the clue informs us) uniq fruit, has rough, wrinkled, greenish-yellow rind. UGLIS are a natural hybrid of a tangerine and a grapefruit, which arose spontaneously in Jamaica, and was discovered growing wild in the early 1900s. UGLI is a trade name for the fruit, used by Cabel Hall Citrus Limited.

  • GIFT OF GAB (33D: Asset for a public speaker) The GIFT OF GAB is also an asset for a blogger!

  • INSOMNIA (37D: ___ Cookies (bakery chain that's open late at night)) The bakery chain known as INSOMNIA Cookies was founded in 2003 by Jared Barnett and Seth Berkowitz, who at the time were students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There are currently over 240 INSOMNIA Cookies locations across the United States; many are located near college campuses. Most stores are open until 3:00 a.m., and not only are they open late at night, but they also deliver – a perfect solution for those late night cookie cravings.

  • ANO (44D: 44D: "Feliz ___ novo!") In Portuguese, "Feliz ANO novo!" means "Happy New Year!" (For a refresher on why this is true in Portuguese, but not in Spanish, see my write-up of the April 5, 2024 puzzle.)

  • ALICIA (46D: Keys with 16 Grammy wins) It hasn't been quite a week since we saw ALICIA Keys mentioned in a clue for GRAND PIANO. ALICIA Keys won her first five Grammy Awards in 2002, including the award for Best New Artist. This year she won her 16th Grammy Award – Best Immersive Audio Album, for The Diary of ALICIA Keys.

  • A few other clues I especially enjoyed:

    • IRISH JIG (8D: Lively dance sometimes performed on Saint Patrick's Day)

    • PICK A CARD (10D: Magician's instruction)

    • UNLIT (38D: Like a menorah's candles before sunset)

Crossword Puzzle Theme Synopsis

  • FIRM HANDSHAKE (20A: Greeting that conveys confidence)

  • FISHING LURE (36A: Alternative to live bait)

  • FORMAL ATTIRE (54A: Requirement for a black-tie event)

The word FIRE is CRACKed open by each theme answer. Therefore, each theme answer is a FIRECRACKER: FIRM HANDSHAKE, FISHING LURE, and FORMAL ATTIRE.

The title of this puzzle enabled me to correctly guess the theme mechanism, and I enjoyed uncovering each of the FIRECRACKERS as I solved. I appreciate that each possible break of the word FIRE was represented: FIR-E, FI-RE, and F-IRE. Congratulations to Sam Brody making a USA TODAY debut! Thank you, Sam, for this enjoyable puzzle.

For more on USA TODAY’s Crossword Puzzles

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Crossword Blog & Answers for April 18, 2024 by Sally Hoelscher