Early in my fieldwork, I met Kameron (pseudonym) at Denny’s, the only sit down restaurant in Ward 7 at the time. Our conversation spanned several topics, but when we turned to gentrification, she made a distinction between “Washington” and “D.C.”:
“Washington is government. It’s politics. It’s the capital. D.C. is east of the (Anacostia) river. D.C. is carryouts. D.C. is mambo sauce. That’s the real D.C.”
This distinction between “Washington” and “DC” is not an uncommon for the city’s natives, particularly African-American natives, to make. They have long experienced the tensions between Washington, DC as the center of national and even international politics and as the site of persistent inequalities. However, this conversation was the first time someone used mambo sauce to symbolize the difference between the city’s two halves.
Though its origins are murky, Mambo sauce is a recognizable staple for many in D.C. and
in some ways is used as a barometer for authenticity. Mambo sauce’s origins are as illusive as its ingredients. The mysterious mix of ketchup, hot sauce, and BBQ sauce is sometimes credited to a restaurant owner in Chicago, though DCers claim it as their own.
The real D.C., as Kameron put it, is marked by the recognition of a staple like Mambo sauce that had become associated with predominantly black and low-income communities.
The same year, The Washington Post published an article title, “Mumbo* Sauce Gets Gentrified.” The popular “D.C.” condiment made its way on upscale menus in “Washington,” blurring that distinction that my research participant pointed out.
This condiment is a lens through which to understand the many ways food becomes a clear indicator of social and cultural shifts—whether those shifts occur through diffusion or systematic shifts in the power to claim or name important cultural objects. What are the implications of mambo sauce’s inclusion on “upscale” menus in Washington? How does this shift the meaning and experience of it? The Washington Post’s use of “gentrified” alludes to this shift as something more than simple diffusion; instead, it implies unequal power dynamics. The systematic, oftentimes violent shifts in demographics, access, and power in Washington, D.C. have race and class implications. Mambo sauce, mostly found in Carryouts located in predominantly black neighborhoods, became a powerful symbol and metaphor for those changes. From the carryouts in the ‘hood to the upscale Hamilton’s menu. Where does “Washington” end and “D.C.” begin?
*Mumbo is an alternative spelling of Mambo