14 May, 2011


My Dutch husband loves a lot of things about the US.

He loves the existence of newspaper dispensers, and their honor system. He loves that people, out on the street, open the machine's door--and take only one paper. This would be completely unworkable in Europe, according to him. Way too many Europeans would head off with the whole stack of papers, just for laughs. Or to sell. Or the dispensers themselves might be more or less artfully dispensed with.
There are a lot of things to love about America--one of them being how much more feasible it is to have decent Mexican food. For my first lunch stateside, a friend and I made our way to a little mom and pop place in Washington, D.C., that serves up made-from-scratch yumminess. Under those unassuming slices of radish topping the tortilla on the left are chunks of unbelievably tender, stewed lengua. To date, this is the only way I'll eat beef tongue, because it is so darn good.
We dawdled in the serene, oddly compelling courtyard at the National Portait Gallery, designed by Norman Foster. The courtyard made the annual list of Conde Nast Traveler's Seven Architectural Wonders of the World. Additional big plus: because the Gallery is located in Chinatown instead of on the Mall, it is a far more uncrowded place than one has a right to expect for a free, world-class museum. I loved the Edward Hopper paintings, and this portrait of poet Walt Whitman. 'Sing a song of myself' indeed. This younger museum-goer seemed more taken by the iconic photograph of Michael Jordan, though.
Raising American children overseas, I am sometimes struck by how little they know of American history, or of America period. I don't know why this startles me: I experienced that same expat distance myself as a child. So while this trip was primarily about spending time with family, it was also an excellent opportunity to explore America's past and present. With this in mind, we were off to the Museum of the American Indian. This, one of Washington's newest buildings, is a very cool space. And conveniently located next to the Air and Space Museum, wildly popular when I was a kid and, I can now confirm, still crazy-busy today.
To try something a bit more sedate, head sixteen miles hike due south of D.C. past Old Town Alexandria, and you can find yourself walking through the entrance of Mount Vernon, George Washington's well-loved home.
The guides are sweetly enthusiastic, and relate all those details you never stop to consider about daily life in the mid to late 1700s. Cooking was a different kettle of fish. There seemed to be a lot of roasting on the spit. There was a separate room for hanging meat (i.e. letting a fresh kill bleed out). And, by the way, I will never complain about doing the laundry again.
But, to be honest, within sight of the lazy Potomac River, ensconced in a porch chair, the less pleasant stuff (like, say, the fact that George was one of several slave-holding Founding Fathers, despite his rhetoric) can't help but recede. And you're left with contemplative admiration for the particularly fine-looking pecan trees in his back yard.
We missed Mount Vernon's Spring Wine Festival which starts this week, but the kids enjoyed seeing the farm anyway. I tried to avoid boasting that I could identify the beef breed and could artificially inseminate the females if I had to...Respect.
You may get a notion that I'm more carnivore than omnivore, but I had a number of cravings to answer to while stateside. And yes, one of them just happened to be BBQ. So I headed further south, dragging my family along with me.
Thanks to tips from the food-savvy, I knew where to head for hickory-smoked pork, superlative coleslaw and hand-sliced fries. If you're dubious about 'cue, its shady past (or my passion), you can learn more about it here. Or you can sample the all-American tastiness at Post 401 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as I did.
There's more to do in Fredericksburg than scarf down slow-smoked meat, though. For starters, it's a college town (home to the University of Mary Washington) so there are the obligatory scads of quirky coffee shops.
Fredericksburg's Old Town is above quota as far as antiquing goes, and you can indulge your own passion for funky vinyl, charming (and over-priced) bait buckets, Civil War memorabilia...or the very American art of scrimshaw.
If you are feeling inexplicably peckish after that BBQ sandwich, you can sidle up to the lunch counter at Goolrick's Pharmacy, claimed to be the oldest continuously running soda fountain in America, with a 1912 start date. Get a strawberry malt for the kid in me...I mean, you.
You'll need to walk off that oversized malt shake, but there's more than enough charm to distract you.
A second walkabout may be in order after having a Goolrick's BLT sandwich. Fact: I cannot make myself a BLT in France without special ordering sliced bacon from a butcher. In France, lardons are the pork currency of the realm. Don't get me wrong. Lardons are wonderful, yes, but you simply cannot make a BLT with them. You can make a BLT salad with them though, and this goes a long way.
In fact, I think that recipe will have to fill in as today's recipe, because I haven't yet gotten the exact proportions on my mom's laborious and crab-intensive soup. While it's too early in the season and the crab traps are still on land, she pulled out some superb broth she'd frozen from last summer, when it was actually ho-hum to pull out a trap loaded with a dozen crabs after just a couple of hours sitting in the brackish baywater. Frankly, I don't think most of us can afford the amount of crab it takes to make such a rich soup. I will say there are tomatoes, celery, cilantro and Vietnamese noodles involved.

I miss my mom.
To be clear: I can heartily recommend escaping the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Northern Virginia for the splendid, Sunday-drive kind of countryside due south.

You could find yourself chatting up a bluegrass musician who's played in a band since 1951, including one performance for Elizabeth Taylor, back when she was married to former Virginia Senator John Warner. Said musician might just serenade you, warbling hillbilly gospel and Patsy Cline on the Appalachian dulcimer he made himself. That's when you'll learn that this instrument is the only one invented in the United States; the banjo's from Africa, or at least that's what the banjo-player told me.
After that, you'll follow the signs...
...and be back in time to taste dad's catch of the day: twenty-plus pounds of striped bass.

For dessert: watermelon flavored Hubba Bubba. Because the French don't have that, either.
* My apologies to those who wrote comments on this post.  This post, along with all the original comments, managed to disappear completely AFTER being published.  Unfortunately, Blogger (my blog publisher) was having problems and they removed people's posts to resolve it.  Only they didn't restore mine or its comments.  I had to reconstruct this all over again...

P.S. To taste more of Virginia's sounds, click here.


  1. One of these days, our trips to the DC area *MUST* overlap! Gorgeous photos!

  2. Love that picture of the asparagus!
    We just moved to (sort of) this part of the country: Chapel Hill, NC and are really loving it. Next time you are in Washington you should stop by the Natl. Bldg. Museum: lots for kids (right now there's a wonderful exhibit on Lego) to do, and the building itself is gorgeous.
    Are you back in France now?

  3. I was in DC last October and also visited Mount Vernon and gained newfound love for our first president after that trip. Imagine if we had a less patriotic or less modest first president? I think history would have shaped out very differently indeed.

    That courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery looks gorgeous. Maybe I'll have to go there on my next trip. I did all the usual favorites on the National Mall this past trip.

    Perhaps some biographies or some classic American literature for your kids to read would help them learn more?

  4. Welcome home! I was wondering where you were...

    I always love to see America through fresh eyes. Makes me think of it in a new way.

  5. Oh what a bummer about Blogger. Welcome home. I missed your posts!

  6. Thanks, Rose. It was wonderful to go, but it's also great to be back!

  7. I'm still waiting for Blogger to restore some of my lost comments, but I guess that's not happening.

    Should I reinsert comment about newfound appreciation for our first president, wanting to visit that courtyard during my next visit, and suggestion of some books for your kids to feel their Americanness? :P

  8. Distributeurs de journaux, ce système existe en suisse aussi. Très surprenant chacun glisse sa pièce et sort un journal, en France ?? je me questionne aussi.

  9. Hi WC,
    I never got the comments or the post back! Thanks for your re-comment, I have been browsing Amazon for some kid-friendly history material...

    Salut Micheline,
    Si DSK se permet de tels infractions (comme on l'accuse), je crains que les distributeurs de journaux n'ont pas un future legitime en France...ou en Italie, au Pays-Bas, etc.

  10. I have been missing you too. Welcome back "home". If you ever want to have a laugh
    about politicians... you have to read
    Always short and funny.

  11. Hi Nadege,
    Always nice to hear from you! I checked out Borowitz, he is funny. Politicians are such easy targets...Arnold the Sperminator...ha! (not so ha for his wife, though.)


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