For decades it has been a paradox of the Washington restaurant scene that chili, the patron saint of heartburn, is celebrated as some of the city’s greatest comfort food. That prestige is thanks to Ben’s Chili Bowl, the humble U Street greasy spoon frequented by global celebrities and politicians since it attained mythoheroic swagger during race riots in 1968. And Ben’s prestige is due in large part to Bernadette “Peaches” Halton. (“Only bill collectors call me Bernadette,” she said; she’s had the nickname ever since her mother noticed she was, as Peaches put it, “a furry baby”).
There is dispute about whether it was the last week of March or the first week of April, but 40 years ago, in 1977, a girl just shy of her 17th birthday sauntered into the diner looking for her first job, an after-school gig. With her practiced countryside Virginian gentility, Virginia Ali, who co-founded the joint with her late husband, the eponymous Ben, sized up the street-wise kid from the neighborhood that is now called NoMa but was then called unprintable epithets.
“Aren’t you a little young to be working?” Ali asked.
“The job bank told me this is where I can get a job, so I’m here,” Peaches replied.
She was hired. Within a few years, she was in charge of making the chili, handed the recipe and ladles by Ben himself. She promised him to live up to that responsibility. That first job became her last, her only, her one true calling. For 40 years, Peaches, Ben’s hidden figure, has been making the chili — all of it — with hardly a sick day (although now she has two assistants to handle, for example, chopping). Variety may be the spice of life, but in a pinch, cayenne will do nicely.
“People tell me it’s too hot in here. Too cold. Something’s wrong with the jukebox. Don’t tell me. Tell Peaches,” said Ali. “She runs everything. I own it. She runs it.”
Peaches comes in through the back door at 3 a.m. almost every day. She lights 10 stovetop burners, each with a five- or 10-gallon pot atop it (and she’s usually juggling 30 pots total). Six of the burners are for chili sauce and four for browning meat and veggies. She wraps that up around 6 a.m. and then she manages the breakfast shift until noon.
“Now write this down,” Peaches instructed me. “This place has never been robbed. Even in all that heroin and crack and those gangs, we’ve never been robbed. No, no, no. Not on my watch.” Ben and Virginia may have brought the spice, but Peaches packed the pow.
“She was an inner-city girl. She knew the ropes,” Ali said. “She could spot anything: drug deals, thieves, vandals, pickpockets, when a fight was about to break out. And I was from rural Virginia. I didn’t know the city or even our customers the way she did.”
“You were so naive!” Peaches roared, slapping the table and letting her eyes bug out for effect. Then, softly and almost apologetically: “We both were, missy.”
Ali adjusted her low-key-glamourpuss mane of white hair. “I prefer ‘reserved,’ ” she said.
If there is an exception to the rule of Ali’s painstaking politeness, it’s Peaches. The two of them call each other “missy,” yes, but also candidly and determinedly think of their relationship as mother and daughter — even if they banter and ballyhoo like sorority sisters at times. “I’m the daughter they never had,” said Peaches, as Ali nodded solemnly. Ali lectured Peaches whenever the latter would date an unfit boyfriend. (Peaches’s current boyfriend is Ali-approved.)
Their devotion is fierce. Peaches once hopped over the counter, reverse bear-hugged a customer and literally threw her out onto the street — all for raising her voice and cursing at Ali. In their slow hours during the devastating construction of the Metro station across the street, when the diner was little more than a food truck at a construction site and when the staff withered to the point that Peaches was the only employee, she would pass the time with Ali by learning to cook — for life, not just for Ben’s. She still giggles about a Heath bar-like dessert they made once. Ali taught her responsibility, promptness and the power of honesty.
“I’m a black woman who can say what I think to all my co-workers without worrying about them being offended,” Peaches said. “From Day One, for 40 years, I have always been comfortable and happy. Even when this neighborhood was all drugs and crime. Even when the mayor got caught with crack. Even when the president got shot. Even when we had to walk a wooden sidewalk next to a construction crater and go home at sundown because there was no streetlights. I was comfortable and happy. I didn’t see any need to go complaining and letting my complaints drag me some other place. This is where I belong. They needed me, and I needed them.”
Bernard Demczuk, Ben’s staff historian, echoed that sentiment. “If you’re behind the counter at Ben’s, you’re having fun,” he said. “That’s thanks to Peaches.”
Demczuk said that the kitchen used to be out front, flush with the counter and booths, and that the indelible presence of Peaches — and his longtime crush on her — kept him coming back as a regular, even in the bleak years.
In a town of revolving-door lobbyists, pop-up protesters, here-and-gone congressional interns and the fickleness of the current White House administration, Peaches’ loyalty, built on a promise to Ben, is a marvel of integrity and reliability. Even Supreme Court justices, appointed for life, often don’t serve as long as Peaches has. But Peaches is not alone. Maria Martinez, now an assistant to Peaches, is in her 19th year at Ben’s. James Dolo, a Ben’s breakfast manager, is in his 16th. Helen Tesfamichael, another assistant to Peaches, has been there 12. They are united in their faith that while tomorrow isn’t promised, it can at least be pledged.
“I kept the faith by remembering this is the nation’s capital,” Ali said. “Where is it going? It has to go up. It’s got to get better. This too shall pass.”
Peaches smiled at that.
“Well, it’s easier for me,” she said. “Whenever I’m working, it’s dawning. Night turns into day and I get to spend that time in a kitchen, in my time, making home-cooked meals for the city and singing along with the radio. Now, you’re gonna tell me that’s work?”
Morgan is a freelance writer in New York.
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