JUST BACK FROM:
WHEN YOURE IN Washington, D.C., its all about choosing sides: Republican or Democrat, House or Senate, Redskins or local high school junior varsity team. (Sorry, cheap shot. Im a Cowboys fan.) Now, add to that cremini or morel.
Im just two blocks from the White House, standing on Vermont Avenue, and Im contemplating that last choice. Actually, Im not choosing between those two varieties of mushrooms; Im trying to decide which of those is the mushroom before me. I think theyre morels. They could be cremini. Its hard to say because only tiny bits and stems are left in the wicker basket from which they are offered for sale. It turns out that every Thursday, in season, these buckets of produce disappear long before late-arriving out-of-towners like me show up in the early evening.
Im walking through the FreshFarm Market, the weekly event established in the fall of 2009 at the urging of First Lady Michelle Obama. She encouraged America to buy seasonal, farm-fresh products. I said to myself, Hey, Im American. I buy food. Im currently eating Pop-Tarts and cream cheese. I think shes talking to me. So, off to D.C. to do my patriotic duty. The last time I was here was exactly 10 years ago, when I celebrated Y2K with a debauched weekend of stiff bourbons and double cheeseburgers. I dont recall D.C. being a health-conscious city then. I want to see if it has really changed.
The short answer is yes. Not long after the First Lady took residence in Washington, she had an herb-and-vegetable garden planted on the South Lawn of the White House. Its kind of famous. Maybe you saw it featured on The Biggest Loser. If not, you can see it this month when the Food Network airs an episode of Iron Chef America that was recently shot at the White House. It features Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Emeril Lagasse battling it out. Their secret ingredients? Whatever is in the garden.
The authorities werent letting me get near there, despite my pleas. (It turns out holding up the back page of American Way does not I repeat, does not amuse White House security.) But theres plenty of produce to be had at the FreshFarm Market nearby just not in the way of mushrooms this late in the day. And thats got me thinking: Who, exactly, bought all those morels or cremini or whatever they were? Tourists? Theyre everywhere, after all. They must also be the ones buying the FBI T-shirts being sold at a kiosk around the corner, in front of the Department of the Treasury. (FBI does not stand for Federal Bureau of Investigation in this case, by the way, but for Female Body Inspector. You stay classy, nations capital.)
I meet my buddy whos lived here for more than a decade now and ask him if D.C. is really turning into a foodie town.
I know it will shock you, he says, but real, live people actually live in Washington, D.C. More friends of mine here care about good food than they do about the nuances of legislation.
To prove it, he suggests I visit a historic Washington institution that has nothing to do with politics. On Capitol Hill, there is a long red-brick building crammed with butchers, fishmongers, and produce peddlers. Called the Eastern Market, it was established in 1873 as one in a network of city markets that dotted D.C. in the days before Piggly Wiggly existed. Today, Eastern Market is the only such market left. It has been in continuous operation since it first opened with the exception of a few months in 2007, when it was gutted by fire. Im not going to lie, my D.C. friend says. I cried when the place burned. Eastern Market, to me, is as symbolic of Capitol Hill as the Capitol.
He doesnt think it is funny when I laugh and point at him, because apparently, a lot of other people feel the same way. The District of Columbia government spent more than $20 million to restore the original market, while local government, community members, and local business owners provided funds to place the Eastern Market vendors in a temporary building while the original market was renovated. That renovation was just completed last summer, and the D.C. foodies have been flocking back to the Eastern Market ever since.
On my visit, a long line of people snakes from inside the building where there are supposedly the worlds greatest blueberry pancakes for sale to the outside, where it continues for a half block alongside a metal shed under which farmers from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania sell produce the First Lady would love.
I scan the crowd to see if I recognize any famous faces maybe Senator Orrin Hatch scarfing blueberry pancakes or Senator Claire McCaskill sniffing some flat-leaf parsley.
Forget about it, my friend tells me. The politicians leave town for the weekend. This is for the people who actually live here, the ones who make D.C. what it is.
And it is, I now admit, a foodie town. That night, we dine on Eastern Market fare: lamb chops, baby arugula, and, yes, even some baked mushrooms. Cremini, I think. No, morel. I forgot to ask.