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Wandering Washington: Food Journeys

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Joel Denker
Washington D.C.

The country’s largest Ethiopian community. The second largest concentration of Salvadorans in the U.S. The demographic details about the Washington metro area don’t square with the popular image. Washington had always attracted immigrants, but in the past, the settlers were small in number, relatively select, and barely visible. Foreigners were mostly students, embassy retainers, and affluent professionals. Now, Washington has not only become an immigrant city, but also a distinctive one. Unlike old immigrant towns, such as New York and Chicago, with their neighborhoods of people from Southern and Eastern European backgrounds, Washington is strikingly a haven for Third World newcomers. Metro Washington may not have a Hungarian restaurant, but it does have a score of Peruvian ones.

When I first arrived in Washington in 1967, after a year teaching in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was struck by the city’s small town qualities. Its sweltering summer heat and southern folkways were unsettling for this northeasterner. I soon realized how apt was John Kennedy’s barbed description of the capital as a “city of northern charm and southern efficiency.”

The food mirrored the atmosphere. A few swank, French outlets like the Sans Souci catered to Washington’s political and social classes. The sports crowd and city insiders congregated at the Connecticut Avenue restaurant, Duke Zeibert’s, which my father, an inveterate New Yorker, called a “poor man’s Toots Shor’s.” Baskets of onion rolls on the tables reflected the owner’s Jewish origins. The kitchen turned out chicken in the pot and, sometimes, matzoh ball soup. However, Washington could not boast a Lindy’s, Nathan’s, or a Luchow’s, culinary monuments of my father’s days in the Empire City.

More typical were southern-style lunchrooms and cafeterias. Sholl’s was a chain of cafeterias where ordinary government and office workers were offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals at rock bottom prices. The business, whose K Street location I frequented when I taught evening classes across the street, was founded by Evan H. Sholl, who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm. The entrepreneur, a man of strong religious conviction, established his first eatery in the late twenties, at the end of the Coolidge administration. Sholl’s shops served up hearty comfort food, daily specials like veal cutlet with tomato sauce and liver with onions. The dining tables were adorned with prayer cards. Its breakfasts were popular with Harry Truman, a country boy like Mr. Sholl.

In this “white bread” era, unusual ethnic restaurants stood out. Going with friends to the Omega, a Cuban restaurant on Columbia Road, had all the elements of an exotic excursion. The menu highlighted such Spanish specialties as paella and mariscada (seafood stew), along with such Cuban standards as ropa viella (“old clothes”), shredded beef. Like many such early Latin places, its dishes spanned the Americas. I hungered for their chicken enchiladas with a large helping of black beans and rice. The legend that the Bay of Pigs invasion was plotted there accentuated the Omega’s appeal.

The Omega was the first in a parade of Hispanic restaurants that opened their doors to curious Washingtonians. The El Caribe and El Dorado, both pan-Latin spots, also set up on Columbia Road. Not far away, in 1973, the Churreria Madrid began selling churros, Spain’s popular twisted crullers, and making gazpacho on weekends. Other Latin outposts are etched in my memory: Pancho’s, a Mount Pleasant night club with a rollicking mariachi band; Carlos Gardel, a bar owned by an Argentinian, where you ate empanadas in the balconies and reveled in the dance music pounded out by the band below. A nearby Cuban luncheonette, whose name I have forgotten, served media noche, the crusty sandwich of pork and melted cheese, and batidos, drinks made from soursop, mango, and other tropical fruits. A visit to the Calvert Café, a pioneering Middle Eastern eatery, was another adventure. Mama Ayesha, a Palestinian woman who was the room’s guiding spirit, prepared grape leaves at a corner table. Before it became a full-fledged restaurant, the café’s bar enticed drinkers with what were then unusual appetizers—hummus and baba ghanouj.

There were few ethnic food groceries in the early days. Skenderis, a Greek grocery near Dupont Circle, was a haunt of mine. In the cluttered upstairs space, Dino Skenderis started a gift shop which rode the Greek shoulder bag craze during the sixties. It blossomed into a purveyor of feta cheese, olives, nuts, dried fruit, and similar items. Dino carried what was then an unfamiliar product, Colombo Yogurt. I was to learn later and to write about the story of this product. Colombo, the country’s first commercial yogurt, was begun by an Armenian family in Massachusetts, the Colombosians.

As the years passed, I uncovered other hidden eateries. The Islander was one of the most memorable. The Trinidadian restaurant, then mostly a carryout near Georgia Avenue, was presided over by Addie Green, a proud, voluble woman. On special occasions, she wore a colorful turban. Addie initiated me into the culture and lore of her land and her food, a mixture of Indian, African, French, and Spanish influences. I tucked into many a curry with rice and peas and savored drinks like mauby, a slightly bitter drink made from the bark of a Caribbean tree. The Islander was one of the most colorful of the many Caribbean restaurants in the 1980s that the Washington Post Magazine highlighted in a cover article.

Salvadoran restaurants began to emerge as Central Americans flocked to Washington, lured by the magnet of the “capital” city and a host of laboring jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings. Many of the early arrivals hailed from a single town, the small community of Intipuca, which flourished with funds sent back by the newcomers. Visitors to a Salvadoran restaurant encountered such revelations as the pupusa, the country’s variation on the tortilla, and marañon, a drink made from the cashew fruit.

Washington was gradually transforming from a sleepy southern town to a polyglot capital. I searched out novel eateries and wrote stories about my discoveries in a column for the Washington newspaper, The InTowner. One of the early pieces I did in my column, “The Ethnic Bazaar,” was about the Happy Inn, an Indonesian-Chinese eatery in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. It was owned by Eric C.C. Lin, a man of Chinese ancestry who grew up in Indonesia and studied atmospheric physics at Peking University. My wife Peggy and I spent many an evening there. Oseng-oseng, a dish of tiny shrimp stir fried with tempe and green beans in a heavy soy-based sauce ignited with chilis, was a passion of ours. I loved the ring of Indonesia’s culinary language, of words like nasi goreng, gado gado, and rendang.

Immigrant communities, which might have first arisen in the city, now began taking root in the suburbs. Restaurants serving these groups followed. My forays in quest of ethnic food soon required Metro rides from my home in the Adams-Morgan area to far-flung neighborhoods. I was excited by Jamaica Joe, a lunch room in a small Silver Spring, Maryland shopping center, which served up “curry goat,” one of the country’s national dishes. A long train ride to Ballston, an Arlington neighborhood, took me to the Pakistani café, Ravi Kabob, one of the many kebab joints that would mushroom in the suburbs. I was drawn by chicken tikka, nicely charred on the outside and moist on the inside and served with a spicy stew of chickpeas, nan, a piping hot thick bread, and coriander chutney. I washed the meal down with a creamy lassi, the traditional yogurt refreshment.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

The explosion of ethnic restaurants in the suburbs has rewarded Washingtonians with a wide

array of choices: Afghani, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Guatemalan. Because of the large influx of Bolivians to northern Virginia, Washington can claim America’s largest enclave of these ethnics. Meanwhile, in the city, dining rooms have sprung up to serve once uncommon cuisines. Domku in the Petworth neighborhood near Georgia Avenue features Polish and Scandinavian dishes. A Czech bistro (Bistro Bohem) in the once unfashionable northwest Bloomingdale section has won a strong following.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Near Dupont Circle, a long-standing convenience store, the Oasis, is now selling sandwiches created by the operators of a food truck. A young, very affable Salvadoran woman prepares the food in the back of the shop owned by a Persian gentleman. One sunny afternoon at an outside table I enjoyed an El Porco sandwich from the intriguingly named Beer and Welding operation. The sandwich brought together pork shoulder flavored with garlic aioli, pickled spring onions, and ramps with swiss cheese and mixed greens. A Brazilian woman, who worked at a salon next door, sat next to me. We compared notes. I savored the food and mused about Washington’s changing ethnic landscape.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog posting from Joel Denker, a historian of ethnic foodways in the United States who has lived in and written about the changing ethnic foods in Washington D.C. He is author of, among many other things, “The World on a Plate: A Tour through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine,” (2003, Westview). Denker’s food writings appear on his website, www.foodpassages.com. This is the first in what we hope is a series of postings about the foodways of the D.C. area in anticipation of the upcoming AAA annual meetings. We would love to hear from more scholars with reflections on food and the D.C. area in coming weeks.

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Filed under AAA 2014 Washington DC, ethnicity, Food Studies, foodways, history

CFP: Trusting the hand that feeds you

Conference of possible interest to readers of this blog:

The interdisciplinary research group Social & Cultural Food Studies (FOST) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel invites papers and panel proposals for its 2015 conference, Trusting the hand that feeds you. Understanding the historical evolution of trust in food, which will held in Brussels from 7 to 9 September 2015.

The conference will bring an historical perspective to the study of consumer anxieties about food. Paper proposals are due on December 15, 2014.  For more details, visit the conference web site.

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, CFP, food policy, food politics, Food Studies, history

Will Work For Food?

Making Cheese Eataly

Food and Work

Call for Papers

 Special issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas

Susan Levine (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Steve Striffler (University of New Orleans), co-editors

Food studies has become an important field for research as well as for activist-oriented students and faculty.  A spate of new literature looks at foodways and identity, agricultural policy and the industrialization of the food system, commodity chains and globalization.  What is missing from this new work is a historical look at food and agriculture as sites of work.   The classic labor histories of meat-packing, restaurant work, or food boycotts, for example, have yet to be up-dated in response to this new research.

We will be editing a special volume of Labor focusing on the history of food work broadly defined.  Possible topics include:

  • Cooking as domestic labor (slaves, servants, maids)
  • Agricultural labor in the context of globalization
  • The impact of fair trade on local agricultural labor
  • Food workers as political actors – eg, the anti-GMO movement in Mexico; the role of food workers in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Restaurant/food-service worker organizing
  • Working class diets – nutrition, malnutrition, and obesity as class issues
  • The work and industrialization in food service corporations
  • Agricultural policy (eg, the Green Revolution) as labor policy
  • Military rations – keeping soldiers healthy
  • Food politics – boycotts, food-strikes
  • Home Economics – gender and professional work/the de-skilling of cooks

Prospective authors should send abstract (300 words) and short CV to slevine@uic.edu andstriffler@hotmail.com by October 1, 2013.  The editors will determine whether the proposed work fits thematically in the special issue.  Articles will be due June 1, 2014.   The special issue will appear as the Spring 2015 volume of Labor.

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CFP: Devouring Japan

UT East Asian Studies Logo

The Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin invites paper proposals for “Devouring Japan,” a 2-day interdisciplinary conference on Japanese food and food cultures, to be held in Austin on February 21-22, 2014. Building on growing academic interest in food studies, the conference seeks to explore five themes that will serve as analytical frameworks for the proceedings: Production, Consumption, Circulation, Representation, and Identity. We seek to include innovative research that explores Japanese foods from a variety of perspectives including:  the material culture of cuisine; histories of iconic foods, beverages or key chefs/restaurateurs; ethnographic and ritual practices involving foods; government policy and the regulation of food; representations of food in art, literature and film; globalization and/or transnational hybridization of foods; and how local, regional and national identities are shaped by foods.

The conference will include keynote lectures by Ken Albala (Professor of History, University of the Pacific) and Eric Rath (Professor of History, University of Kansas). It will culminate in a keynote roundtable discussion by Professors Albala and Rath, together with select panelists, to reflect upon the potentials for cross-disciplinary research between Food and Japan Studies.

In addition to presenting original research, invited scholars will be asked to actively participate in panel discussions by acting as respondents and in the culminating roundtable session.  Participants will also be asked to submit a draft (12-15 pages) of their papers by January 25, 2014 for distribution to other conference participants. A select number will be invited to revise their papers by August 31, 2014 for publication in an edited volume.

Thanks to the generous support of the Japan Foundation and the Northeast Asia Council of the Association of Asian Studies, UT will cover all ground transportation, meal and hotel expenses in Austin.  As befits the themes of the conference, participants will have several opportunities to sample some of Austin’s best food offerings.  Invited scholars, particularly junior scholars with little access to travel support,will also have an opportunity to apply for additional travel funding in fall 2013.

Interested scholars are asked to submit a short (max. 3 pages) CV and a paper proposal of max. 400 words to Dr. Nancy Stalker,  nancy.stalker@austin.utexas.edu, by August 15, 2013.

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Call for Papers: “Sugar and Beyond”

Here is a call for papers that may be of interest to FoodAnthropology readers:

Sugar and Beyond

Organizers: Christopher P. Iannini, Julie Chun Kim, K. Dian Kriz
The John Carter Brown Library seeks proposals for a conference entitled “Sugar and Beyond,” to be held on October 25-26, 2013, and in conjunction with the Library’s Fall 2013 exhibition on sugar in the early modern period, especially its bibliographical and visual legacies. The centrality of sugar to the development of the Atlantic world is now well known. Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labor, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury commodity into their everyday rituals and routines.

“Sugar and Beyond” seeks to evaluate the current state of scholarship on sugar, as well as to move beyond it by considering related or alternative consumer cultures and economies. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions. This conference thus aims to serve as an occasion where new directions in the study of sugar can be assessed. At the same time, the connection of sugar to such broader topics as the plantation system, slavery and abolition, consumption and production, food, commodity exchange, natural history, and ecology has pointed the way to related but distinct areas of inquiry. Although sugar was one of the most profitable crops of the tropical Americas, it was not the only plant being cultivated. Furthermore, although the plantation system dominated the lives of African and other enslaved peoples, they focused much of their efforts at resistance around the search for ways to mitigate or escape the regime of sugar planting. We thus welcome scholars from all disciplines and national traditions interested in exploring both the power and limits of sugar in the early Atlantic world.

Topics that papers might consider include but are not limited to the following:

  • The development of sugar in comparative context
  • The rise of sugar and new conceptions of aesthetics, taste, and cultural refinement
  • Atlantic cultures of consumption
  • Coffee, cacao, and other non-sugar crops and commodities
  • Natural history and related genres of colonial description and promotion
  • Imperial botany and scientific programs of agricultural expansion and experimentation
  • Alternative ecologies to the sugar plantation
  • Plant transfer and cultivation by indigenous and African agents
  • Provision grounds and informal marketing
  • Economies of subsistence, survival, and resistance
  • Reimagining the Caribbean archive beyond sugar: new texts and methodological approaches

In order to be considered for the program, please send a paper proposal of 500 words and CV to jcbsugarandbeyond@gmail.com. The deadline for submitting proposals is December 15, 2012.

Presenters will likely have some travel and accommodation subvention available to them.
For more information, keep checking this site or email Margot Nishimura, Deputy Director and Librarian (margot_nishimura@brown.edu).

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Dreamworlds of the Store-Bought Loaf

guest post by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, as part of his White Bread Blog tour!

“And which side does an object turn toward dreams?…It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims.” —Walter Benjamin, “Dream Kitsch

 Walk through the fluorescent arcades of a Safeway or Kroger’s and pick out a loaf of sliced white bread.  It is a fossil—the chemically preserved remnant of lost utopias and unrealized apocalypses. This is not to say that all the other breads—the six grains, the twelve grains, the Vienna hearths, the sprouted oats, and store-brand baguettes—reflect progress toward more enlightened eating.  They don’t, necessarily.  Nor is it to suggest that people don’t make new meanings out of industrial white bread.  They do.  What is lost is the shining aura that once surrounded this loaf.

“One for every family…every day,” c. 1955

If you look hard enough, though, you can still see material traces—in the loaf’s shape, structure, and contents—of a time when people in the United States got more calories from this one item than any other food; a time when the perfect, homogenous slice of spectacularly white bread embodied dreams of a stronger nation, vigorous health, and social status—alongside nightmares of “over-civilization” and moral decline.

“Science finds that white bread helps develop criminals,” 1929

I wrote a history of America’s most iconic industrial food because I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity.
The result—White Bread—is a book about one commodity that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements.  But it is not another story of how one food “saved the world.”  Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world—or at least restore the country’s moral, physical, and social fabric.  Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion—even when they achieved much needed improvements in America’s food system.

Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today will find the trials and tribulations of one hundred-fifty years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary.  In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place—but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as “good food,” and open discrimination against people who choose “bad food.”

Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today.  But, in many ways, we owe its very existence and deep cultural significance to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.  Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.

“I want to know where my bread comes from!” 1929

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon 2012) and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas (Duke 2007).  His writing on the cultural politics of food has also appeared in Gastronomica, The Believer, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.

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