Terry, Marion and Julia: Julia Child’s kitchen and other culinary treasures in Washington, DC

by Terry B on July 22, 2009

“America’s Attic” displays Julia Child’s entire kitchen and the dimestore lunch counter that served to further the civil rights movement; stellar food in a museum cafeteria [seriously] and our best flea market find—the fojol bros. of Merlindia.

julia-kitchen

Julia Child quite literally bookended our trip to Washington, DC. last weekend. On the flight out, Marion was reading Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. And when we were preparing to board our flight home, I realized the book I was reading was in our checked bag. Fortunately, we found a copy of Julia’s My Life in France in an airport bookstore.

julia-my-life-in-franceThis double dose of Julia Child was perhaps less than coincidental. For one thing, the soon to be released film “Julie & Julia” has caused a resurgence of interest in the beloved American icon, and publishers and bookstores are only too happy to oblige.

But something else had Julia back on our radar. In planning our weekend trip, we had created a carefully edited list of must sees based on time constraints and sheer stamina. Our primary focuses would be Lincoln and art, as much of both as we could possibly take in. Entire Smithsonian museums were jettisoned from the list. The National Museum of Natural History, for instance [wonderful, but we've done that], and the National Air & Space Museum [um, no]. The National Museum of American History, as wonderful as it is [the Star-Spangled Banner, Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz"], almost joined the reject pile. Then we read that it now houses Julia Child’s kitchen. Suddenly, we had a pilgrimage to make.

In 2001, when Julia left her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to return to California, she donated the kitchen to the Smithsonian. Not only had the well-stocked, homey space been her kitchen for 42 years, it had been the set for three hugely popular public television series over a seven-year span—and the place where she had cooked for family, friends, fellow chefs—and the entire country. As the The National Museum of American History’s website describes this wonderful gift, “With this kitchen, the Museum has acquired an ‘object’ that perfectly represents Julia Child’s extraordinary influence on the way Americans think about their food and its history.”

Moving this “object” was a nearly year-long process that involved documenting and cataloging more than 1,200 individual items, from vegetable peelers to the used, six-burner Model 182 Garland commercial gas restaurant stove that Julia had bought for $429 in 1956. When the museum finally unveiled the exhibit Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian in August 2002, they had reconstructed the entire kitchen as it existed when Julia cooked in it.

Seeing the kitchen itself was both fascinating and a bit of a letdown. It was impressive in its size—14′ x 20′—and the wonderful array of equipment and “stuff.” There was plenty to gawk at and covet, although not in the name brand, celebrity status sort of way. Everything felt like honest, hardworking kitchen tools. But without Julia’s warm, larger than life presence, the kitchen felt somehow empty and like the museum exhibit it was. What saved the exhibit for me is a large flat screen monitor outside the kitchen that displays excerpts from her acclaimed PBS shows, along with short clips of various chefs and celebrities talking about Julia’s style and amazing influence. We stood transfixed, as charmed by her as we had ever been, and instantly reminded of the magic that regularly happened in the now silent kitchen.

Fighting for equality, at the five-and-dime

woolworth-counter

This small section of counter with four stools in front of it evokes a whole different set of emotions. On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at this “whites only” lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth dimestore in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. They were refused. But when asked to leave, they remained in their seats, staging a sit-in that drew national attention and helped ignite a movement to challenge segregation and inequality throughout the South.

In Greensboro, hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches and members of the community joined in a six-month-long protest and boycott. It ultimately led to the desegregation of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960. Protests such as this led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning racial segregation in public facilities.

Even though this small piece of lunch counter is far removed from its context, both in place and time, its effect is electrifying. An ugly time in America’s history is made concrete by the four empty stools. You can feel the humiliation and anger, decades in the making, of being made to feel unwelcome and inferior, of being shut out of so many places and experiences. And you can sense the courage of those four young men, facing down hatred and standing up for dignity and equality.

I’m sure many visitors to the museum view this Woolworth counter as a sign of how far we’ve come. For me, it was a stark reminder of just how far back we started. Find out more about the historic sit-in at the museum’s website.

A museum cafeteria’s name translates as “Let’s eat!”—
and means it

buffalo-sandwich

Museum cafeteria food is often described with terms like “convenient” or “serviceable”—or less charitably, as “fuel.” But as Eve Zibert of the Washington Post so perfectly puts it, “The cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall makes it clear that cafeteria food doesn’t have to be bland and boring.”

I would go even further and call the food at the museum’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café destination food. It certainly was for us. To get the most from our Smithsonian museums time, we couldn’t wander far from the Mall in search of decent food. I’d read somewhere that the National Museum of the American Indian had the best museum cafeteria on the mall, so we headed there.

“Mitsitam” means “Let’s eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. According to the museum’s website, “The Café features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains. Each of the five food stations depicts regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes. Selections include authentic Native foods such as traditional fry bread and corn totopos as well as contemporary items with a Native American twist—think buffalo burgers!”

I thought pulled buffalo sandwich, seasoned with cinnamon and shown above with chayote squash slaw. Marion went for a mild, tender smoked javelina pork shank with chimayo chili. Both were exquisite and from the Great Plains food station. We shared a peppery cup of turtle chowder with pickled ramps from the Northern Woodlands. Other temptations we didn’t have room for included a grilled venison flank steak and a cedar planked, fire-roasted juniper salmon, both from the Northwest Coast.

Next time we’re in Washington, we’ll definitely go back to the museum. And maybe this time, we’ll even see some of the collection.

The Mitsitam Native Foods Café. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; closed December 25. Full menu 11 a.m.–3 p.m.; limited menu 3–5 p.m.

Tracking down the fojol bros. of Merlindia

fojol-bro

The whole DC weekend came together so quickly that it didn’t sink in as reality until days before we climbed on the plane. As a result, we didn’t do our usual level of research, seeking out arcane insider tips on our destination. But two nights before we left, I mentioned to Marion that I’d read about cool street food in Washington. Minutes later, she found the fojol bros. of Merlindia online, and a new obsession was added to our to-do list.

I scoured their website for locations for the movable feast. I started following them on Twitter, hoping for hints. No dice. Making our way back from Madam’s Organ late Saturday night, we had a brief sighting of the gleaming silver truck as it drove past the partying crowds clogging 18th Street’s sidewalks in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. But that seemed as close as we were destined to get to sampling their fare.

Then Sunday morning found us at the Flea Market at Eastern Market, and there we found the fojol bros. Honestly, we weren’t even hungry. We’d started the morning with a breakfast of chocolate raspberry truffle cake [don't ask]. But we were curious. The fojol bros. must get a lot of that—well, and late night revelers who’ve drunk up all but their last few bucks. If you look down in the lower lefthand corner of the photo above, you’ll see the sample-sized $2 Dingo Bite cup. Brilliant. We had two, the Chicken Masala and the Chicken Curry, both served over basmati rice. They. Were. Perfect. The four of us passed them around, savoring each bite and wishing we hadn’t started with the cake so we could have gone back for more.

Only two of the four fojol bros. are actual brothers, and they’re not named fojol. According to Washingtonian magazine article, the fojol bros., “a three-parts-Washington/one-part-Seattle collaboration, are DC’s newest food cart: a ‘traveling culinary carnival.’ Serving what they call Merlindian food—popular Indian dishes such as chicken masala served with big smiles and a few winks—the fojols have quickly become an after-work favorite in Dupont and the late-night snack of choice for bar-hopping crowds at the intersection of 14th and U streets, Northwest.”

The brothers are given to goofy circus-style turbans and patently false mustaches, but their commitment to great food is genuine. According to their site, they offer a changing menu of “delicious and healthy food with no preservatives… fresh vegetarian and meat-based meals served over basmati rice.” Their commitment to the planet is just as genuine. A portion of proceeds from their sales are set aside to fund at-risk youth programs for DC children. And the serving trays, plates, napkins and even sporks they use are made of biodegradable, compostable or recycled materials—many items are made from readily renewable resources such as sugar cane or corn.

If you should find yourself in DC, track down the fojol bros. You’ll be genuinely glad you did.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

altadenahiker July 22, 2009 at 11:39 pm

A collection of pots and pans will not necessarily capture the soul that rattled the handles.

I’ll try the book.

Melissa July 23, 2009 at 1:31 am

How cool. I want to go to DC now just to track down the fojol bros trailer. I am obsessed with food trucks. I will add it to “my list” . Hmmm, Chicago really does need some good street food….don’t get me started! And I am asking about that chocolate raspberry truffle cake even though you told me not to! Spill the beans.

Terry B July 23, 2009 at 4:26 am

altadenahiker—I know what you mean, but when we saw an exhibit on Darwin at the Field Museum in Chicago, there was something magical [in a geeky sort of way, I'll admit] about seeing his notebooks and, say, a microscope he’d used. Perhaps it was that we were kept at more than arm’s length from everything, unable to see it up close and imagine it in use. But do read Julia’s My Life in France. It’s totally charming.

Melissa—I know! Chicago is ripe for inventive street food—as you’ve said before, food regulations in this town are so restrictive. The cake isn’t that big a story, really. We knew Mellen was preparing a wonderful dinner while we museum hopped. So we stopped at Firehook Bakery in DuPont Circle to pick up some dessert, the cake in question. Except by the time we forced ourselves to stop eating Mellen’s seafood bourride, there was no room for cake. So instead, it made one of the best breakfasts in history. [Okay, Steve and I had actually cut into it when we got back from Madam's Organ around two in the morning—it's also great post-drinking food—but there was plenty left for breakfast.]

Laura July 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm

I have been wanting to see that Julia exhibit for ages! I really enjoyed reading My Life in France…and am certainly looking forward to Ms. Streep in the movie!

altadenahiker July 23, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Notebooks are a different matter Terry. To see someone’s handwriting brings that person alive — it’s so unique, so somehow personal.

Terry B July 23, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Laura—For you, DC is just a quick Acela train ride away. You could almost make it a day trip. Regarding the movie, Marion said she’d read that old friends of Julia’s who previewed it said they would forget that it wasn’t really Julia on the screen. We are so ready to see it.

altadenahiker—I know what you mean about handwriting, but I really think it was more the getting up close to individual objects, even though they were in cases, that created a more intimate connection.

Helmut Tomas July 25, 2009 at 9:17 am

Thanks for this fascinating report on your brief Washington City trip!!!

Bill Medifast July 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm

So amazing! I love how informative you are. These are things I would of probably never known about Washington DC without tons of research! Will have to hit of the Museum for something tasty to eat when my family travels there.

Thanks for this!

Bill

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