by Miki Kawasaki
On September 17th, members of the BU Gastronomy community had the pleasure of attending a lecture by visiting professor Warren Belasco entitled Can Food Save Washington? Inventing Terroir for the Nation’s Capital. Dr. Belasco spoke from the perspective of an “angry Washingtonian” who has lived in the city for four decades. In his research, Dr. Belasco ponders why Washington lacks its own distinct food identity in comparison to other gastronomic hubs such as New York City or New Orleans. He asks what can be done to establish terroir in the city. As the nation’s capital, Washington has the potential to set a standard and influence local food trends in the rest of the country. If terroir can be created there, it can happen anywhere.
In considering why Washington does not have a stronger food identity, Dr. Belasco pointed to the lack of a grounded population as well as the aspects of city planning that inhibited the growth of a more visible local culture. The development of present-day Washington involved the transformation of a landscape that divested it of its natural food-rich ecosystems. Pierre L’Enfant’s designs to fashion Washington as “the Paris of the new world” ultimately turned its grassy, wet land into a grid of monumental architecture. In the
1930s, centers of culture and commerce were quashed to make way for governmental buildings, including Center Market, which at the time was one of the largest public markets in the world. Washington has long played host to a sojourner population, coming in and out with the political tides and rarely establishing roots. Lacking a native landscape and population, the growth of a distinct regional identity was ultimately stunted.
Despite the historic ambivalence of Washingtonians toward their own city, Dr. Belasco does have hopes for elevating an indigenous food culture there. He pointed to recent attempts to reclaim the commensal landscape, the prominence of local entrepreneurs, and the possibility of constructing a foundational mythology based on historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who was deeply involved in the maintenance of a vegetable garden during his residency at the White House. It is also necessary to consider Washington’s significant black population, as well as the more recent arrival of immigrants from El Salvador, Ethiopia, and other countries in contributing to the social and cultural makeup of the city.
When visiting the city today, there are signs that Washington’s food culture is overcoming its faceless past and possibly even flourishing. There is a thriving network of farmer’s markets and community gardens, widespread embrace of hometown brands such as DC Brau and Five Guys Burgers, and even local culinary celebrities like Jose Andres and Derek Brown. If one is able to look “beyond the marble” of the Mall, they might discover that Washington has a vibrant food scene which cannot be observed from the seat of a tour bus. There is no shortage of inspirational movers and shakers within the food industry who are committed to making changes in Washington today. It is possible that through their efforts and the embrace of Washington’s forgotten resources, a food identity can be created in our nation’s capital and maybe one day recognized throughout the world.
Miki Kawasaki is a native New Yorker who arrived in Boston this September by way of Washington, DC. Prior to entering the Gastronomy program, she obtained her BA in Art History and East Asian Studies and spent several years working in DC’s restaurant industry.