“Nothing makes me prouder than when a DC native builds on a dream and sells a product that reminds customers young and old about our great city,” reads the letter, dated Sept. 21, 2017. “Arsha and Charles Jones, your love of DC’s iconic mambo sauce, lead [sic] to the founding of Capital City Co., thus realizing those long held dreams.”
“May the mambo sauce always flow!” reads the last line.
It’s possible she signed the letter without writing or reading it. It’s also possible her opinion changed in a year. But the tone of that letter sounds as if it came from a much different leader than the one who grumbled on Facebook on Tuesday: “Is anybody else annoyed by Mumbo sauce? I wish people would stop suggesting that it is quintessential DC. I’m just saying I was a full grown woman before I had heard of mumbo sauce! So there, I’ve said it.”
Arsha Jones initially thought the mayor’s account had been hacked. When she realized it hadn’t, she waited for a public apology, but it didn’t come.
Jones then began wondering, “Who is the real mayor?”
“What’s really the truth?” Jones said. “Now it makes me question, does she not like go-go music? Does she not like Ben’s Chili Bowl? Does she have a secret hate for half-smokes? What else does she hate?”
To many people outside the Beltway, #Mumbogate, as it has been dubbed on social media, may seem a silly, passing controversy about culinary preferences. But it is about so much more than food. It is about respect and who feels they get it in a rapidly changing city that has grown more expensive to live in, drawing wealthier, whiter newcomers and pushing out black residents who can’t afford to raise their children in the same neighborhoods where they grew up.
It is about identity and feeling that the mayor may be from the District but not of the District.
During presidential campaigns, candidates don’t try food in local cities to expand their culinary palates. They do it out of deference and out of a desire to be viewed as part of that community.
It doesn’t matter if they are lactose intolerant, they know they have to chomp down on a cheesesteak in Philadelphia and worry about the gastric consequences later. If they feel guilty about eating meat, they can hug a cow on their own time, but when in Texas, they must devour a barbecue platter.
It is better if they do both while smiling and letting grease run down their chins.
People watch candidates’ faces closely when they bite into local foods, and mock them when they do it wrong, because it says something about the relatability of those politicians: If they share your tastes, maybe they’ll share your interests. If they don’t like your food, maybe they aren’t like you.
The mumbo diss was not a minor misstep by Mayor Bowser. It was her stepping right into a giant pile of the sticky stuff. The condiment, which has Chicago roots but can be found at carry-outs across the District, is tied to racial and geographic identity. Bowser, who grew up in Northeast Washington, should have understood that.
“It’s the Washington that exists in hole-in-the-wall joints owned by Chinese and Korean immigrants who long ago learned how to cater to a mostly African American clientele, down to a condiment. It’s the Washington that if you didn’t know where to look, you might never see.
“The allure of mumbo sauce (also known as mambo sauce) is not just its flavor, which falls somewhere between barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s the sense of identity it carries. It tells of roots in a city where many people just blow through.”
At that time, I also interviewed Arsha Jones and visited her at her Maryland home to watch her make the sauce. She started experimenting with the recipe because she couldn’t afford to live in the District, where she grew up, and she wanted her four boys to know a taste she associated with so many memories.
Jones and her husband were selling their product online then and told me they dreamed that maybe one day they would see it in the grocery aisles in Bethesda.
Their company, Capital City, now sells the sauce in more than 500 grocery stores in the Washington area, including at Safeway, Wegmans and Shoppers. In a month, they are launching a deal with Walmart that will make it available outside the region.
“We’re going to move this train forward whether Mayor Bowser is on it or not,” Jones said.
Bowser’s press secretary issued a statement on behalf of the mayor Wednesday that explained her comment in this way: “The Mayor wanted to provide DC residents something to discuss on Thanksgiving beyond the midterm elections, backup quarterbacks and holiday shopping deals.”
She achieved that. The problem, for her, is that they won’t soon stop discussing it. Based on the criticism she has received on social media, much of it expressing concern that she aligns herself more with newcomers than native Washingtonians, she is going to have to do more than issue a brushoff statement to reassure residents that she represents everyone in the city.
“You cannot represent D.C. and speak ill of D.C.,” Jones said. “Do you think you would ever hear the mayor of Baltimore say she hates crabs and Old Bay? Even if she’s allergic to seafood, even if she doesn’t like the taste, you would never hear her say that.”
Maryland Del. David Moon (D) learned you can’t even joke about that.
Mirroring Bowser’s wording about mumbo sauce, he wrote on Twitter, “Is anybody else annoyed by Old Bay seasoning? I wish people would stop suggesting that it is quintessential MD. I’m just saying I was a full grown man before I had heard of Old Bay seasoning! So there, I’ve said it.”
Soon after, when some people didn’t get the reference, he had to explain he was only kidding.
Of course, he was. Most politicians know better than to insult what their constituents put on their plates.