Fresh Food in the First City: Dining in D.C.
Washington D.C. is a city steeped in history and politics, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s every bit as interesting a food town as it is a political nerve center. Up until last weekend, I hadn’t been to D.C. in years, but I was recently invited to do a cooking demo at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market, and I jumped at the chance. Now that D.C. is home to Michelle Obama’s First Organic Vegetable Garden of the United States (aka, “FOGTUS”), I was curious to see how her initiative was reflected in the city as a whole.
My adventure began on a Saturday afternoon, minutes after arriving at D.C.’s grand Union Station (D.C. is only three-and-a -half hours from New York by train-who knew?). My hostess whisked me away to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, on the Southwest waterfront of the city, where dozens of outdoor vendors sell fresh and prepared seafood to a diverse mix of hungry customers. The scene was colorful and relaxed, with soul music booming, Southern accents abounding, and people eating exotic treats like hushpuppies, crab cakes, fried oysters and sweet corn. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we had a dinner engagement waiting.
We headed over to the U Street Corridor, an increasingly gentrified neighborhood teeming with eating establishments and music venues. We rang the bell at a beautiful colonial-style house and gave a password to enter-we had arrived at Hush Supperclub for an evening of food and storytelling. Our hostess, Geeta, has her roots in a Northwestern region of India called Gujarat. She follows the Jain religion, which has strict dietary rules; practitioners cannot eat meat, onions or garlic. The aim of the dinners is not only to feed people but to keep alive the cultural traditions of the Gujarati people. Between courses, Geeta told stories of learning to cook via her mom’s long-distance phone instructions, had us sniff spices like black mustard seeds and cardamom used in Gujarati cuisine, and talked about what it means to be Jain. When we left, I was pleasantly stuffed with the best homemade Indian food I’ve had in recent memory, and we had made fast friends with the strangers sharing our table.
The next morning started bright and early with my cooking demo at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market. By 9:30, the grassy hill where the market is perched was filled with shoppers buying fresh ingredients and prepared foods from farmers and restaurateurs. I found fresh oysters, clams, and a local white fish called “croaker” at Buster’s Seafood, but most exciting were their soft-shell crabs; an owner of Buster’s, Paige Hogge, carefully slipped three of the live creatures into a bag and held them on ice for me. (Pan-seared and tossed with pasta and a leafy green called erba stella from Next Step Organics farm, the crabs later made for a quick dinner that tasted of the sea.)
The Farm at Sunnyside had the first sweet shelling peas of the season, and Chris’ Marketplace gave out samples of a spicy gazpacho that made me swoon. For my cooking demo, I quickly sautéed spring ingredients including asparagus, garlic ramps, and pea shoots, and topped it all off with grated sheep’s cheese from Everona Dairy, another market vendor. Customers waited patiently while I made the dish from scratch, asking thoughtful questions as I cooked. They seemed delighted to learn about new ingredients, and upon tasting the dish gave it rave reviews.
The rumor around the market was that Dolcezza Gelato & Sorbet was having a grand opening of a new store nearby. I headed over and was met by long lines and a festive crowd. I waited in line for my free opening-day sample and received a generous cup of the flavors Pistachio and Virginia Peanut. If I had to pick a high point of my weekend, it would be when the creamy, salty, and wonderfully perfumed gelato hit my tongue. Washed down with a cup of artisanal brewed espresso, I felt a deep satisfaction, and a sense that everything was going to work out in life. Ah, the power of food. . .
The day ended back in the U Street area at a Jamaican joint called Patty Boom Boom, where a downstairs counter sells hot Jamaican “patties”-a savory pastry of meat or vegetables enclosed in a flaky crust-which is not unlike a sort of West Indies empanada. I ordered one filled with sweet potato. Upstairs is a bar where they make a great Dark and Stormy cocktail-a combo of ginger beer and rum. On Sunday evenings, reggae music plays to a cozy crowd, but on other nights of the week the place is simply packed with enthusiastic D.C.’ers who come to dance to Jamaican classics and take a load off.
So, if you thought Washington D.C. was only about politicians eating their words, consider a culinary visit to find out just how food-savvy politicos fuel all those endless debates on Capitol Hill!
Louisa Shafia is a cook with a passion for healthy eating. She recently penned Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, a collection of seasonal recipes and eco-friendly advice on food. To watch her cooking videos, see her recipes, and find out about her cooking classes, go to lucidfood.com.