Louisa Shafia

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!

Resource links:

Maine Avenue Fish Market

Hush Supperclub

Dupont Circle farmer’s Market

Dolcezza Gelato & Sorbet

Patty Boom Boom

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.

6 Responses to “Fresh Food in the First City: Dining in D.C.”

  1. maddy says:

    louisa! Thanks for sharing this blog posting and for the great review of the Dupont FRESHFARM Market – and our fair city! I have the recipe you prepared, should anyone out there want it; and please do come back & visit us (and the markets)soon.

  2. Deb says:

    I’ve never read about or heard about or even thought about this side of D.C. I love going to museums, libraries and public buildings but sometimes, traveling, I do feel just kind of worn out and like a need to escape to someplace with more smells, colors, tastes . . more to touch. It’s like a need to get back to the right side of my brain, or the part of me that was a four-year-old sniffing peonies before I can feel whole, and rested, and wanting to jump back into the museum world. Not that some museums don’t have a lot of stuff that’s tactile, especially the modern or renovated ones, but still: after a while the world feels kind off kilter, and I feel like I’ve got to get outdoors or go back to my hotel room and take a nap to recharge. The idea of eating terrific food might just do it too! Thanks for the tip, and the update on part of the whole grow-your-own-urban food movement!

  3. KAHUNA says:

    Great article – I have a cousin who is a graduate from the CIA and now works in DC – This article may just get my but in gear and get me down there- Of course I will have to stop at a few places along the way down 95 for some cheesesteaks and crabcakes-

  4. Geeta says:

    Louisa, thanks for joining the HUSH supper table and for the kind review. Was a pleasure meeting you and I look forward to trying out recipes from Lucid Food.

  5. Cookbooker says:

    I’ve been meaning to visit an old friend in DC. Learning about the exciting culinary scene has made me want to make the trip sooner rather than later!

  6. [...] popular in D.C., where word spread quickly. Prominent media coverage in The Washington Post and on Rachel Ray’s blog has [...]

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