My story through the lens of DC
An exploration of my life through agriculture, philanthropy, and immigration
Hola my friends!
I am so honored to be part of a new project from the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum called Urban Adventure. For this culinary scavenger hunt, I was given the opportunity to tell my story through the lens of Washington DC, my home, the place where I have lived for 30 years. I filled my Urban Adventure Kit with old photos, menus, and recipes, to share stories of food through family and cooking, agriculture and farming, immigration and social justice, and philanthropy and humanitarianism. Here’s some of what you will find inside!
My culinary adventure starts out at Jaleo, where I was brought on as Executive Chef in 1993. It was here that I was able to starting bringing the foods of my homeland, Spain, to the people of America. Tapas wasn’t really very well known before then…we had a lot of work to do! In the box you can actually see some of our very first menus and branding, which is like a little time capsule from the past.
Jaleo is located across the street from the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office. Since my first days in DC, Clara has been a huge inspiration to me, and in some ways her creation of the Red Cross influenced me to start World Central Kitchen. So if you are stopping by for a bite at Jaleo, go over to the museum for a visit, too.
The MLK Library and Marianne’s
The next stop on my trip is to the MLK Library where DC Central Kitchen, an incredible community organization here in DC, opened Marianne’s by DC Central Kitchen. This is their second social enterprise café, and it is named in honor of the late great Marianne Ali (watch a story about her here), who was a social justice trailblazer and a dear friend. I hope you’ll explore the library and have lunch at Marianne’s which is truly amazing in its impact…providing living wage careers to graduates from their Culinary Jobs Training program and hands-on learning opportunities for current students. If you sort through the Adventure Box you’ll also find some old photos of me volunteering at DCCK with my mentor Robert Egger, the founder of DC Central Kitchen, and Marianne (it was over 20 years ago and we look SO young!)
Café Atlántico and Los Compañeros
As you know, food has always been about culture, connections, and communities…so next on my list is a trip to visit the original location of my second restaurant, Café Atlántico (now closed), which my partners and I opened in the '90s. This restaurant was in the Mount Pleasant/Adams Morgan area, a historically Hispanic/Latino neighborhood, and it represents what I have always felt is the truth…that immigration is not a monolithic story. It was also here, on the dance floor, that I met my wife Tichi! The restaurant is now the home of another Latin restaurant, Los Compañeros, funny enough, owned by chef Ann Cashion who originally hired me as chef at Jaleo back in 1993! So you can go in and enjoy some of Ann’s cooking.
The Farmer’s Market
No food tour would be complete without a visit to a farmer’s market. When I lived in DC, my market was the one at Dupont Circle, and now I go to the one in Bethesda near my home there. There is so much value to having access to healthy fresh foods, especially when they are coming from local farms. It improves our communities, connects people to the places where food is grown, and deepens relationships with our farmers.
Sadly, there is still so much inequity in healthy food access in cities across the country, with many food swamps and deserts in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color…healthy food is out of reach for many people. Finding quality fresh food means either traveling far distances or paying too much, or both. Here in DC city, for example, there are no farmers markets across the river. At the Anacostia Museum's Food For the People exhibition you can see that there is only one full-service grocery store for 85,000 people in Ward 8 vs. 8 full-service grocery stores for 90,000 people in Ward 2.
It’s not surprising then to see that the communities without access to fresh food have the highest risks of obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases. If we can work together on policies to eliminate food deserts and and increase nutrition security, I know we can have a huge impact on the health and well-being, both physically and mentally, of our friends and neighbors, of our communities.
The last stop on my Urban Adventure is your kitchen! Gather your kids, your friends, your neighbors, and get ready to cook. I’ve included a recipe that my mother used to make for me and my brothers called migas. This is a humble dish of bread crumbs, chorizo, and grapes. I wanted to share it because it shows you how to reuse and finish off foods you have lying around. Put it together and you have a beautiful meal. It’s something very simple and inexpensive, but to me it is full of so much memory. That’s what cooking for family does, it creates memories that come alive in you no matter how old you are.
So my friends…you see that this box is full of so many of my own stories, that are also universal stories. I hope it will be a way for us to connect…and for you to share your stories with me here on Longer Tables.
The Urban Adventure Kit from the Anacostia Community Museum is $75 and is available now through September.
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