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D.C.’s mayor disses mumbo sauce, and the reactions say a lot about the changing face of Washington

Muriel E. Bowser has no love for Washington’s signature mumbo sauce. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

As if she didn’t have enough on her plate with campaign finance reform, Airbnb restrictions and the search for a new public school chancellor, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser decided late Tuesday to post her feelings about mumbo sauce on Facebook. The comments, like the sauce made famous in the District, ran sweet and sour.

Bowser’s irritation is with mumbo sauce’s elevated status in Washington: Along with the half-smoke and Senate navy bean soup, mumbo sauce is one of the city’s precious few signature tastes (even if it was originally created in Chicago in the 1950s). But as The Washington Post’s Theresa Vargas wrote in 2011, mumbo sauce has traditionally been a cultural barometer for the city, an easy way to differentiate between old-school black Washington and often-transitory white Washington. Wrote Vargas:

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. Among the African Americans who live in the District, more than 60 percent were born here, according to census estimates. Among whites, that figure is less than 15 percent.
In its own way, mumbo sauce has traditionally distinguished the two.

Bowser is a Washington native who grew up in Northeast, in the North Michigan Park neighborhood near Catholic University. But she graduated from a private, all-girls Catholic school in Bladensburg, Md., and then received an undergraduate degree from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. To some on Facebook, Bowser had, with her late-night mumbo-sauce trolling, just aligned herself with the influx of newcomers and gentrifiers who have changed Chocolate City to Latte City. Few, if any, would be familiar with mumbo sauce, let alone would have grown up with the sticky wing sauce.

Mumbo sauce gets gentrified

Mumbo sauce, also known as mambo sauce, can be found in carryout restaurants throughout Washington. It is a staple for many residents in D.C. and part of a completely unknown subculture to others. (Video: The Washington Post)

Here’s a small sample of the shade thrown at the mayor, typos and all:

Ryan Blakeney: “I can’t believe she even posted this. So out of touch with the real DC. I guess this new demographic required a show of support and this post was it. I bet u had them raisins in your macaroni and cheese from day 1 though huh???”

Redd Ronnie: ” don’t think I would have said that. At least you waited until after the election. That would have hurt you at the polls.”

Michael Canty: “I say stay in your lane. Mumbo sauce is DC culture. You probably were too nerdy to know how cool it was……keep up the good work.”

Tony Sizemore: “This is very insulting from somebody who’s supposed to be uplifting DC and it’s very proud culture and storied history and this is coming from born and bred DC native. I was eating Mumbo sauce in 83 from Cadillac Carryout in NE after leaving go go’s at Cherry’s and the Atlas. This is why people don’t feel like ur part of the city.”

Lea Starr Bee: “I hope people realize this is bigger than mumbo sauce. It speaks to the disconnect many feel about the mayor. ‘Chocolate city’ ain’t so chocolate anymore and it’s a sensitive topic.”

Da Davis: “Mumbo sauce is definitely a DC thing, just as go go, the big chair and Ben’s chilli bowl and Horace and Dickies. Shame on you Mayor.”

Kaliyma Kay Johnson: “Gotta be hacked!”

Of course, Bowser did have sympathizers, people who were just as oblivious to the famous sauce or simply didn’t understand its attraction. Some wanted to point out that mumbo sauce was not even a D.C. invention.

Michelle Armstead: “To be honest — I’m a Washingtonian and I don’t remember tasting it EVER! And boy was I surprised to see it at the Giant for $7!!”

Claire Cashwell: “I agree. I never had it until 8 years ago; it is highly overrated.”

Oh So Pretty Cox: “I totally agree with you Muriel Bowser. I’ve tried it and not impressed.”

Robert Makana: “Mumbo sauce comes from Chicago…they just sued a dc based company and won…a black man from Chicago by the name of Argia Collins invented it.”

Actually, the person who invented mumbo sauce is named Argie B. Collins, and among Chicagoans, his name is sacred.

Mumbo sauce: The flavor of Washington ‘that isn’t the president and the politics’

“If there’s a Mt. Rushmore for Southside Chicago barbecue, Argie B. Collins — the inventor of Mumbo Sauce — is definitely one of its four faces. Collins really helped popularized the style of barbecue that came out of Southside Chicago,” emailed Kevin Pang, a former food writer for the Chicago Tribune and now food editor for the Onion’s the Takeout.

Despite this, the consensus (well, the consensus among the three people I polled) is that mumbo sauce is more popular in Washington than it is in Chicago. But more than that, to several generations of Washingtonians, mumbo sauce is a taste of home, a flavor they associate with growing up in Chocolate City, where Yum’s or Cadillac or some other restaurant/carryout served as their personal wing stop. With her short, perhaps insensitive Facebook post, Bowser just discounted their history.

But the mayor says that was not her intention. Her press secretary sent out a statement today about Bowser’s late-night musings on mumbo sauce:

“The Mayor wanted to provide DC residents something to discuss on Thanksgiving beyond the midterm elections, backup quarterbacks and holiday shopping deals. All may participate in the debate; however, DC residents must lead the mumbo sauce portion.”

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