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Once the Capital of Boring Food, Washington Evolves to Culinary Cutting Edge
By Alana Pedalino
WASHINGTON -- New York has cheesecake, Philadelphia has cheesesteak and Chicago is known for deep dish pizzas. California won the lottery with sushi, and Massachusetts still makes a mean clam chowder. Even Alaska’s got king crabs.
But the District of Columbia?
I couldn’t think of the District’s culinary claim to fame. Neither could my friends and my classmates, nor The Washington Post and its readers, not even the chefs of Washington. True, the half-smoke is the District’s invention, but an iconic food on a national landscape? Definitely not.
So what makes Washington such an anomaly in national food culture? In truth, it has one, reflected for decades in basic fare.
But it is evolving into an eclectic mix of regional and international dishes that is transforming the area into a food capital. To understand how the District finally got on the map, some historical perspective is essential.
The District’s culinary history is steeped in southern cuisine—specifically, black southern cuisine of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
“The DMV area … was already in the throes of the same forces that create the rest of southern culture (and) southern food, i.e., the collision of cultures and foods (from) Europeans, natives and Africans, the development of a plantation culture, which eventually took over the economy, and a cuisine that matched those cultural fusions,” said culinary historian Michael Twitty.
Nutritional value of food used to be directly related to its taste, said David Shields, an English professor at the University of South Carolina and author of Southern Provisions, which explores the roots of southern cooking.
The southern diet was born from a meeting of the European and black slaves’ culinary staples—livestock, potatoes and grains, peanuts, beans, varieties of corn, eggplants and squashes, respectively, Shields said. Slaves would then prepare the different foods and ingredients the way they did in West Africa.
Slave and plantation culture was prevalent throughout the Washington region prior to the Civil War, which meant that plantation owners would keep black cooks. Domestic positions were status jobs.
“Lowcountry food was all done in the plantation South, so you did have a largely African cooking force, some of them very well-trained,” Shields said.
Over time, whites developed a taste for the food and began to hire black caterers for events and patronize restaurants with black chefs. Though it was acceptable for whites to dine at a restaurant where a black chef cooked, the restaurants were still white-only.
Demand for “soul food” (although it wasn’t called that until the mid-20th Century) and the blacks who cooked it skyrocketed. In the District alone, three blacks owned and operated their own restaurants before and during the Civil War, Twitty said.
In the mid-1800s, a story circulated that when the Spanish ambassador arrived in the District in the middle of the night, he went to black caterer Edward Louis Savoy’s house and woke him up to start planning a menu.
Savoy was always in constant demand; his findagrave.com entry credits him as a “celebrated and much requested Sommelier (wine taster)” who catered the opening of the District’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1869 and operated a joint restaurant-liquor store on 16th and V N.W. (a few blocks from the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro Station) during the Civil War.
“(Savoy) was so well-known that when he died, his obituary was in the paper,” Twitty said. “Think about this: This was before slavery ended, and a black man was one of the most famous cooks in the history of the city.”
Baltimore and the District became known as the best of the southern food cities, largely because of the cuisine culture that sprung up around the Chesapeake Bay, according to Twitty.
“(It was a) regional cuisine, one based on corn, and chicken and shellfish and fresh produce, and it was very unique to the Chesapeake Bay,” Twitty said.
After the Civil War, more blacks opened restaurants.
This period coincided with the Great Migration in the early 20th century, in which millions of blacks moved from the Deep South into northern states to escape post-Civil War racism and lynchings prevalent there – more than half (1,821 out of 3,446) of lynchings targeting blacks that occurred from 1882 to 1968 happened in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana, according to statistics from the Tuskegee Institute Archives.
Blacks also sought job opportunities in cities that were as far removed as possible from to picking cotton or other slave jobs their ancestors had worked.
They took their cookery with them, causing more big cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, to gain a southern flair in their cuisines.
But the Great Migration also sent the District into a state of transition. A constant flow of blacks and immigrants from around the world in and out of Washington at this time meant that people were eating and serving food that reminded them of home, and home encapsulated many countries and cultures.
“You know like when you go to Charleston or New Orleans or Savannah and you’ve got this handed down tradition? D.C. doesn’t have that,” Twitty said.
Enter the half-smoke: the one bright spot of tradition the District clings to today. Washington standby Ben’s Chili Bowl defines the savory sausage delight as a type of hot dog topped with special chili sauce (mustard is a fine substitute in my experience), white onions and chili served with a side of golden, crisp french fries. Twitty said the half-smoke was an important revelation in the District’s identity and culinary legacy because it was a deliberate product of segregation.
The same goes for mumbo sauce, a spicy, fire engine-red concoction found in Chinese restaurants around the District.
“D.C. has an identity that has been created by the Great Migration, and that’s not less authentic,” Twitty said. “It may not be highbrow cuisine, but it’s definitely a historical culinary legacy.”
Washington experienced a culinary French revolution in the 1830s when President Andrew Jackson hired Joseph Boulanger, a Belgian chef who cooked Jackson French meals.
When Boulanger left the White House, he opened a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue that became very popular and inspired a trend, said John DeFerrari a District native, historian, blogger and author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.
Caterer and confectioner Charles Gautier opened Gaultier’s on Pennsylvania Avenue, an elegant French restaurant where John Wilkes Booth met with his co-conspirators in 1865, DeFerrari wrote on his blog, Streets of Washington.
Prior to these establishments, restaurants were usually attached to inns, and patrons were known for drinking to excess and being exclusively men, DeFerrari said.
“Women never went to restaurants by themselves or with other women. They would go with their husbands if at all and if they did, they would be kept in a separate room,” he explained. “This was really a chauvinistic impulse typical of the time, that (husbands) wanted to protect the women from men who had maybe been drinking too much and saying the wrong things.”
Proximity to the Chesapeake Bay was also hugely important in the 19th century.
Oyster houses dotted the culinary landscape because oysters were abundant, and everybody ate and enjoyed them.
DeFerrari said oysters were considered “fast food.” Turtle soup also reigned supreme – in the late 1800s, 400,000 pounds of Diamondback Terrapins were killed every year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (sorry, Testudo). Black caterers and their comfort food continued to be popular late into the 19th century as well.
In spite of the Chesapeake’s oyster and turtle goldmine, restaurant growth halted during Prohibition as restaurants were no longer able to rely on alcohol sales to help the bottom line.
The restaurant drought continued into the World War II and postwar years, in spite of the District being overcrowded with young soldiers and federal workers who enjoyed going out.
However, President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier also meant a change in the restaurant landscape when he became president in 1961. Kennedy enjoyed going out to dinner, especially in Georgetown, where he lived before he moved to the White House. He proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in a corner bar that still is in business, Martin’s Tavern.
JFK also was a patron of Rive Gauche (perhaps Francophile Jackie’s influence) and hired French chefs for the White House as Jackson did. Kennedy staffers lunched at the new Sans Souci, a tony French establishment steps from the White House’s northwest gates.
Under Kennedy, Washington experienced a French culinary renaissance and restaurant boom.
“The presidents have certainly affected the ups and downs of the restaurants … and that has continued up to the present day,” DeFerrari said. “The contrasts between the style of the presidents can also add that mood of excitement when (the) president comes in and really likes to eat out and enjoys and appreciates good restaurants.”
By the time Jimmy Carter entered the Oval Office in 1977, fancy Washington places like Sans Souci seemed to be on the outs with an administration focused on selling the presidential yacht and turning off the lights to save energy.
Art Buchwald, a newspaper humorist who was a long-time Sans Souci patron, offered an explanation in 1977 to the Associated Press for why Carter administration officials were strangers to Sans Souci maitre d’ Paul DeLisle.
“My theory is that they don’t come because Paul makes them wear a tie,” Buchwald joked.
But former White House executive chef Pierre Chambrin doesn’t think presidents have much influence on the local dining scene.
Hired during the administration of George H. W. Bush, Chambrin previously was the night-shift chef at now-defunct Le Bagatelle and executive chef at the District’s Maison Blanche in the 1970s. He said there was little interaction between the White House and the District in terms of a shared food scene.
“The White House is not a restaurant, that’s a private home,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter what the food trend is, what you have to figure out is the tastes of the president and the first lady.”
While the Bushes preferred to be surprised with their meals, the Clintons wanted low-fat ones. According to Chambrin, none of their preferences had an effect on restaurant growth beyond the gate. Although the McDonald’s on Lafayette Park benefited for a while from the publicity of President Bill Clinton’s impromptu stops during his jogs.
“With a restaurant you always have to please the customer or the food critic, but (at the White House) it’s the first lady and the president,” Chambrin said. “It’s one thing if you like something yourself, but if you put it on the menu and nobody likes (it), what are you going to do?”
Nevertheless, the restaurant scene continued to boom as refugees from warring and/or politically unstable countries emigrated from Ethiopia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Thailand and South America to the United States from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Choosing to settle in Washington – the ultimate symbol of freedom in the United States—these refugees opened restaurants that featured food from their homelands.
“People were fleeing bad situations and they came to Washington and started opening restaurants, and we had some fine Middle Eastern restaurants. We had some of the first Vietnamese restaurants, Thai restaurants, and others,” DeFerrari said.
The ethnic communities and restaurants popped up, but they were not strongly connected, according to DeFerrari.
Pupuserias and Ethiopian cafes were peppered generously throughout the national capital region – including in College Park’s neighboring cities Langley Park and Silver Spring—but presidential eating habits, high-ranking officials’ and lobbyists’ power lunch culture and steakhouses still dominated the downtown restaurant scene. (Government workers were more likely to eat at a sandwich shop. Higher-level officials and lobbyists did the power lunches).
Presidents, visiting movie stars, entertainers and sports figures, tended to stick to spots such as Duke Zeibert’s, a steakery opened in 1950 that shuttered in 1994, and Blackie’s House of Beef (1952-2005), which served generous slabs of prime rib as patrons dined under signed celebrity photos covering the walls a la Sardi’s in New York.
When he was vice president, Hubert Humphrey sometimes would greet Blackie’s customers at the door, according to a 2006 Washington Post story on the restaurant’s closing.
"Can you imagine a vice president of the United States now coming in and working your front desk?" Lulu Auger, 81, wife of the late owner, Blackie Auger, told the newspaper.
But steakhouses are not cuisine, DeFerrari said.
“Traditionally … food itself is not the reason to go (to steakhouses). They’re mostly meeting places for power brokers to get together and talk business,” he said. “Historically, they haven’t been places that have been very original or exciting in terms of the cuisine. The government people have not pushed D.C. to be creative and original.”
As for the half-smoke and other District favorite, mumbo sauce, during this time? DeFerrari calls them a “kind of a subculture.” And another Washington Post article notes that Chicago has owned the trademark for mumbo sauce since the 1950s.
“The honest answer is that there’s really no distinctive D.C. food item. People have proposed different ones and they’ve all been problematic in one way or another,” DeFerrari said. “There isn’t a food that I can think of that spans all of the different ethnic groups and cases of people in the city.”
The District's Culinary Present (and Future)
If you take a walk around Washington today, you’re bound to find restaurants boasting foods from around the world. But this is a relatively recent development.
According to Nora Pouillon, environmental activist, chef and owner of the country’s first certified-organic eatery, Restaurant Nora, there were only white table cloth French and American restaurants before hers opened.
Her creation is not downtown, but near Dupont Circle in a leafy neighborhood of embassies, mansions and apartment houses.
“(Restaurant Nora) was one of the first restaurants to serve Mediterranean food … (food) from Morocco, Lebanese food, Indian food, I do Austrian food, French food, just a melting pot of cuisine,” Pouillon said. “My specialty was additive-free ingredients, no hormones, no pesticides,” Pouillon said. “I drove out to the farms. Nobody did that.”
The number of restaurants then was also fewer then than it is today. with Pouillon could think of only 20 restaurants a few decades ago in the Washington area that were “worth going to.”
When young professionals started moving back into the District and the city started undergoing an economic boom in the 1990s, new cuisines and different kinds of restaurants were introduced.
Large plates with small food, fanciful presentation and steakhouses went out of vogue; in their places multicultural, casual eateries, mixology bars, food trucks and “lean cuisine” restaurants cropped up, Pouillon said.
“All the young chefs that were working for other restaurants in other cities, they all want to establish Washington as the place to open a restaurant and (now) you have this unbelievable plot of restaurants,” Pouillon said. “In the last five years or so, it’s unbelievable...If you think about 14th Street, you have nearly 100 restaurants in 11 blocks.”
Fusion cuisine has also become very popular in Washington. Though fusion cuisine threw food critics for a loop initially – when Pouillon opened her fusion restaurant Asia Nora 20 years ago, critics cried “fusion confusion” – the movement has blossomed in the city.
Pouillon said that it is old fashioned not to mix up cuisines today: China Chilcano serves Chinese-Peruvian fare, Buredo combines Japanese with Mexican, even sandwich standby Taylor Gourmet got in on the fusion fun by releasing a kimchi cheesesteak this past fall.
Pouillon said she likes the mixture. “For me, that is very American. … It’s interesting, the cultural mixture, (but) it’s definitely a trend.”
In addition, chefs Jose Andres and Mike Isabella represent a trend themselves: the chef fusion franchise.
“Before it was one chef, one restaurant, now it’s one chef, five to 10 restaurants,” Pouillon said. “More like cookie cutter restaurants.”
Because it is difficult to find trained chefs in the area, chefs who franchise utilize a workforce in a variety of restaurant settings.
Young sous chefs tend to work in this workforce for two to three years before they branch off to open their own, usually casual restaurants.
Isabella is a perfect example of this. Before Isabella opened his District-renowned restaurants Graffiato and Kapnos, he was the executive chef of Andres’ Mediterranean concept restaurant Zaytinya for three years.
“There’s a lot of great chefs trying to build a brand out here in Washington, D.C.,” Isabella said. “I have a lot of concepts – I have French, I have Japanese, Mexican, Greek, Italian, fast-casual, fancy spots, you name it.”
“I think that makes it fun because … being able to, like, have different foods and people know who you are and you’re building your brand (and) you’re making it stronger, it’s not like the same concept everywhere,” he said.
As a result, the model of the chef franchise combines marketing, creative strategy, modernity and the variety of multi-concept eateries – something especially vital in engaging stereotypical millennials who want everything and cannot make up their minds.
“(Franchising chefs) know how to design a restaurant, we know how to run service in a restaurant, we know how to do bar programs, we know what people are looking to eat,” Isabella said.
His concepts often arise from researching a neighborhood and tailoring the concept to the people who live there and other establishments nearby.
“You really have got to know the area and figure out what’s in the area to make you successful,” he said.
However, Isabella also cites nonfranchising chefs Aaron Simpson of Rose’s Luxury, Erik Bruner-Yang of Maketto, George Pagonis of Kapnos and Jeremiah Langehorne of The Dabney as the front-runners of current techniques.
He particularly admires Langehorne’s The Dabney for doing something “modern with Old World cooking” and sourcing his products in a contemporary way.
However, in spite of today’s locally-sourced obsession and salad chains such as Sweetgreen and Cava sprouting on every other block, organic restaurants like Pouillon’s are not cropping up around the District.
“If you have a certified-organic restaurant, you are restricted by what you can use. There are many things you cannot find organic, especially unseasonal things,” said Pouillon.
Pouillon also said that eating organically and sustainably is more popular on the West Coast and still trickling into Washington’s food scene. She said she thinks of farm-to-table dining as “weird” because McDonald’s can be considered farm-to-table cuisine.
“Here it’s still all local … and I think on the West Coast local is understood, but it’s also sustainably farmed and organic, much more into the product itself,” Pouillon said. “(The) West Coast has always been a leader. I think D.C. will get there, but I think it will take a while. It’s also a question of money. In California, organic food is so much cheaper than here.”
Going forward, Pouillon hopes that Washington’s restaurants adopt healthier, more organic culinary practices.
“Food is supposed to be wholesome, supposed to be keeping you healthy, keeping your spirit and your body in good shape,” she said. “If you eat all these chemicals, no matter how small they are, they add up.”
Isabella foresees a similar future due to people’s heightened awareness of what they eat.
“People really know about food and know what they’re eating,” he said. “They’re not getting something to eat that’s right around the corner. They’re going out of their way for it, and that has to do with the internet, that has to do with chefs, that has to do with TV.”
“It’s all those things that’s making people smarter, and pushing the chefs to be more innovative and healthier, (create) more local-style food and cooking,” Isabella added.
Pouillon also predicts that more chef franchises will open, along with bars and fusion restaurants.
Isabella is following through on her prediction with Isabella Eatery, which he plans to open at Tyson’s Corner in Fairfax, Va., next year. The multi-concept eatery will feature international cuisines from Japan, Mexico, France and Spain in addition to upscale, casual and fast-food restaurants – all within the same area. Mixology will also be prominent.
“It’s something special and unique. It’s something no one’s doing,” Isabella said. “Eateries are the future because it’s an experience now. That’s what city-style dining is, where you have everything around you, not like certain suburbs.”
“The idea isn’t anymore like a white tablecloth, elegant restaurant. … People now go to places because they have a famous mixologist, unbelievable drinks,” Pouillon said.
Isabella said chefs will continue to raise the bar.
“I see it getting better and better every year,” he said. “The strong (restaurants) will continue to strive and the weaker ones will not.”
As for Washington’s culinary claim to fame? Pouillon couldn’t think of a specific food, but she appreciates the choices now that presidents or residents could not have imagined a few decades ago.
“One of the nice things in Washington is the cultural diversity. I mean, in a small area. Where else can you eat Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Latino, Southern—all within a couple of blocks?” Pouillon said. “For me, that is typical of Washington.”
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