Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, DC

 

There is tradition in carrying the knowledge of a recipe passed down between generations in a family. It is that one extra combination of ingredients or use of technique that define the tastes and textures of what reminds us of home. Maybe there’s one dish that stands out from your family get togethers but it could be multiple. Maybe it’s that one specialty that only a certain relative can make that you crave when you come home from college or while visiting during the holidays. Be it sweet or savory, hearty or delicate; everyone has “their dish”. If you were lucky enough to have family ask you what you wanted to eat for a birthday dinner, my guess is that same answer is a strong contender for taking the title of what you crave.

I was lucky enough growing up, to have a family of choice; a group of people (maybe 8 households total) who adopted my mother and I into their traditions. They gave of their time and friendship to walk with us as I adjusted to growing up and my mother dealt with the daily intricacies of single parenting a teen while starting a small business. I’ve commonly heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” and this ultimately was our village. They came to support my extracurriculars, offered my mom some respite by inviting me to sleep over and hang out with their similarly aged children and provided a much needed at times change of pace. There were 3 things I know I learned from engaging with this family of choice: Jesus, the Spode Christmas Tree China Pattern and that when the live Eagles DVD started playing it was time to say thanks and head home until next time. When relationships with our own extended family became strained, it was comforting to have a place to enter free of judgement and dependably welcoming.

Each year, this group gathers around the holidays, specifically to check in and catch up, but there is always Chili. And I know I am biased, but this Chili is a hefty helping of what feels like home to me. It’s not the spiciest dish, but has flavor which permeates from every bowl served. If you are lucky enough to have any sent home with you, letting the chili sit in the fridge overnight only extends the flavor profile the following day. This Chili which feels like home to me goes against the Texas purist ideology that no beans should be included, but I possess no shame in eating or serving this 3 bean Chili. It’s delicious and I was fortunate enough to be handed down the recipe.

The family that hosts the gathering each year (with whom I actually found the boombox) helped me out with a job as a law clerk when I was in college. Part of my responsibilities in this role outside of routine preparation of files included baking mountains and mountains of pumpkin bread around the holidays to package and share as thank you’s to people in the field. I too, carry knowledge of that recipe by which I was sworn to secrecy. However, after making hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of pumpkin loaves over the years, I have a love/hate relationship with the final product. If I have a slice or two every year, it is a pleasant reminder of that time, but I know that I don’t personally need multiple loaves. Either way, the Chili provides context and a frame of reference by which I associate this family of choice. All of these homes are strong on their own, but are sturdier together. And I am stronger because of their influence and presence in my life.

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The first time I went to D.C., I was told by a coworker who grew up there for a time about some Washington food staples: Busboys & Poets, a really great Thai place and some of the really high end places I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford on a blue collar salary. D.C. excites my culinary sensibilities because, much like Houston, there are so many different cultures that coexist alongside each other. The late Anthony Bordain was always able to address how in this cross section of cultures, flavors begin to emerge that are beautiful in that they celebrate history, but also compliment one another and create something new.

Ben’s Chili Bowl was founded in 1958 at it’s original location on U St. in Washington D.C. Through the years, many customers have been served, including those whose pictures line the walls; Musicians, Presidents and Entertainers alike. The chili itself is a greasy delight, powerful enough to knock out any hangover you may face, but is also flavorful as a testament to the parts included in creating it. This is not chili for the day before a long flight back home, but with an early enough start and some pepto just to be safe, you’ll get to experience firsthand part of what makes D.C. so unique.

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I had not planned on using as much Mongo Sanataria on the blog, but with a title like “Chili Beans”, how could I pass up the opportunity? Plus, much like a steamy bowl of chili on a cold day, this music will move you if you let it.

 

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