What’s missing from D.C.’s food scene? A lot.
In mid-May, my Friday produce didn’t arrive from the Oasis co-op, a group of 30 small farms in Lancaster County, Pa. It was an Amish holiday and my delivery was postponed, so I went to a Whole Foods store.
When I reached the fruits and vegetables, I found: corn from Florida with wilted husks. “Heirloom” tomatoes from Canada — a summer fruit grown for Whole Foods during the Canadian winter — offered at $5 a pound. Three-dollar artichokes (each). Apples, last year’s crop from Washington state, at $2.50 a pound. Pears from Argentina hard as rocks. Mexican blackberries.
Is this the best we have in Washington?
I went two days later to the Dupont Circle farmers market. I want earnestly to support this, my neighborhood outdoor market. And I think farmers markets have made a big contribution here, increasing availability of good produce. But salad greens at $11 a pound? Rhubarb at $6 a pound? A small bunch of ramps for $6?
When I moved here in 1961, people said the best cooking in Washington was found in embassy residences and people’s homes. At that time we had a few specialty stores such as the French Market in Georgetown, no farmers markets, and 80 percent of the groceries sold here came from two behemoths, Safeway and Giant Food.
But ingredients in the Eastern Market and the then-existing Western Market were as good as those in any other city. Our restaurants weren’t so wonderful, but in 1961 that was true virtually everywhere else, too. A half a century later, much has changed. Or so we are told.
I read paeans to Washington’s food early this year in the national press as it turned its collective attention to the presidential inauguration. Food & Wine magazine wrote hyperbolically about “innovative restaurants that are keeping this early-to-bed town up way too late for a 6 a.m. power breakfast.”
A lot of sophisticated eaters say Washington is now a “world-class” food city, whatever that means. When they say that, they generally are talking about our restaurants; and we have many good restaurants. We even have a number of excellent ones. Central Michel Richard, CitiZen, Palena, Obelisk, Vidalia all come to mind.
But I have lived here for 52 years, and food has been my hobby all that time. In 1990 I turned that hobby into a career and opened Marvelous Market. In 1997 I started the Breadline, a downtown bakery and restaurant (I don’t own either of them now).
I am not nearly as encouraged as others. I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture.
Great food cities are ones with a discernible tradition, ones that have good grocery stores and markets; many small stores run by people with single-minded devotion to food craft — to charcuterie, coffee, bread, cheese and ice cream — and relatively easy access to really good produce and other ingredients.
Great food cities have restaurants offering varied cuisines at varied price levels, neighborhood restaurants and special-occasion restaurants. They have chefs committed to their cities and focused on their restaurants, and — most important — a sophisticated and demanding clientele intolerant of bad service and bad food.
My criteria for great food cities don’t include bars presided over by “mixologists,” a gussied-up term for bartender created to justify an $18 cocktail ($22 at Rye Bar, $25 at Barmini). My criteria do not include “cutting edge” chefs who play with the molecules of food, or made-for-television celebrity chefs. Nor do they include “power restaurants,” important here but in few other cities and to few customers. Indeed, my criteria go well beyond restaurants.
My first criterion of a great food city is that it have a real tradition, a food culture, a food identity. New Orleans has a unique cuisine based on Creole, Cajun, African American and Southern foods. In San Francisco, says chef Joyce Goldstein, “Food is the business of our city; it’s our civic life.” San Franciscans order their bread in advance from Tartine Bakery.They line up at coffee shops that offer coffee custom-made from beans the customers select. It’s pretentious, but it’s also a measure of their obsession with food.
Los Angelenos boast about their diversity and how far they will drive to explore it, of markets in Koreatown, Tehrangeles and Little Saigon. Baltimore has crabs and oysters and an Italian American tradition and a Greek one, too. Seattle and Portland, Ore., are proud of the little chef-driven restaurants and their abundant markets. Kansas City has its barbecue. New York and Chicago think they have everything.
My first criterion of a great food city is that it have a real tradition, a food culture, a food identity. ... The city has a soft spot for Ben’s Chili Bowl, and I will stipulate that it is a nostalgic restaurant whose place is assured by its history. But Ben’s is Washington’s version of Pat’s and Geno’s, those Philadelphia monuments to cheesesteaks: iconic but not good.
What exactly do we have? It was touching a couple of years ago when The Washington Post asked readers to name the iconic food of our city. We don’t know what it is; we have to invent one.
But food cultures emerge from their cities’ geographies and histories. Our geography might have helped give us one. We are near the Chesapeake Bay, but the bay has affected the food culture of Baltimore far more than it has ours.
“One of the things that D.C. lacked,” says David S. Shields, professor of Southern letters at the University of South Carolina who grew up here, “was a robust market ... compared to other East Coast urban centers. Cuisines historically reflect a regional agriculture.”
Sidney W. Mintz, a Johns Hopkins University anthropologist who has written extensively about slavery and about food, says: “I guess every city is unique, but Washington is unique in unique ways. ... It was for so very long barely a city at all — more like a place to store paper after world-shaking decisions were made.”
But it was always Southern, he says, and the emphasis on manners and hierarchy “probably strengthened the idea that decent food could only be had at home.” Eating out “must have been something that foreigners and diplomats did — not to mention traveling salesmen and vaudevillians.”
Shields agrees. “The best chefs in the city,” he says, “worked for private citizens, clubs or embassies in the 19th century.”
Washington never developed a food identity. When, early in the 20th century, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and many of the older cities were receiving from Europe a working class to populate their industries, Washington had no industry. People didn’t come in large numbers and open the little bakeries and food stores based on immigrant traditions.
We might have developed an African American cuisine, but food didn’t transfer readily from the underclass that followed slavery except in home kitchens of people who could afford to hire cooks.
Says Michael Johnson, a Johns Hopkins historian who specializes in the South: “Better-off whites often ate (and loved) food cooked by blacks, but when they dined out, they wanted to be considered cosmopolitan, not provincial, and preferred to eat some faux-French dish.”
I know we can point to institutions that have a history here. The city has a soft spot for Ben’s Chili Bowl, and I will stipulate that it is a nostalgic restaurant whose place is assured by its history. But Ben’s is Washington’s version of Pat’s and Geno’s, those Philadelphia monuments to cheesesteaks: iconic but not good. Sentiment is important, but good food is another matter.
Perhaps, however, a city doesn’t require a tradition to be a great food center. But certainly it does need a rich food community, an array of markets, small entrepreneurs making and selling foods, a diversity of restaurants, a local chef culture, and demanding customers.
I think we fall short.
Look at our food stores. In other cities — San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, San Antonio, for example — local grocery stores burst with formerly esoteric ingredients such as galangal, curry leaves, turmeric and taro root, five varieties of bananas and four kinds of mangos, breads from diverse local bakeries, and butter from practically every country where cows (or goats) live.
But we don’t have a Central Market, as Texas cities do, selling great vegetables and fruits. We don’t have a Draeger’s Market, as in the San Francisco Bay area. We don’t have a great cheese store like Murray’s in New York or a captivating specialty food store like Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass.