It never fails. Every year, the monuments throw on some red and green, the streetlights get festooned with twinkling wreaths, and lobbies up and down K Street break out their dusty aluminum pre-lit trees. For whatever reason, people don’t normally think of the District as a town that can, as Dickens put it, “keep Christmas well.” Believe me, Washington D.C. has a world of holiday wonders, conveniently located away from the crowds flocking to the Ellipse. Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Hidden in Plain Sight. My name is Jonny Grave, and I’m here to help.
HIDDEN HOLIDAY SECRETS OF THE DISTRICT
Have you got family coming into town? Would you like them to trudge through the mud on the Mall to see scores of severed spruces? I didn’t think so. While you may want to queue up, and enjoy a TSA-grade pat-down to see the National Christmas Tree, or the National Menorah, there’s a wealth of things far better in this city. Here’s some of the best (and somewhat secret) places to visit around the Holidays here in the District:
The Anderson House
A giant mansion, built for the express purpose of entertaining, by one of Washington DC’s first modern-era power couples. The Andersons were world-traveled, and well-heeled. This kind of shows throughout the sprawling manor just South of Dupont. Usually, they’ll put up some decorations for the Holidays, but the visit is worth it any day of the year. Oh, and admission is free.
I know what you’re thinking. “The place where Lincoln was shot and killed? Why would I want to visit there?” I had exactly the same thought when I paid my first visit last year. The truth is that there is far, far more to the museum than the assassination of America’s sixteenth president. The exhibit beneath the theatre begins with Lincoln’s election and inauguration, and continues as a walking timeline of his presidency and his work. Yes, there’s a good deal on his murder, and even a glass case with the gun that killed him, but there’s a whole other building. The exhibit continues across the street, to a showcases of how his legacy lives on. There’s also a halfway decent waffle shop down the block worth checking out.
The C&O Canal
I swear I’ll get around to writing my “In Defense of Georgetown” piece someday. In the meantime, take a stroll through Georgetown, head South until you come to the Canal, and just keep walking West. It’s a little brisk, but with the leaves gone from the trees, there’s a much clearer view of Roosevelt Island, and Virginia’s side of the Potomac. Sunsets on the remnants of the Aqueduct Bridge abutment are stunning. When you’ve frozen yourself solid, you could either walk back to Baked and Wired for cookies and hot chocolate, or go to Farmers Fishers Bakers for a proper meal.
There are workshops, performances, exhibitions, lectures, and chances to meet some of the scene’s most interesting artists. There’s never a dull moment here, and their calendar is not slowing down for the Holidays at all. The surrounding Barracks Row neighborhood can also provide ample opportunity for dining options before or after the show. My vote goes to Bélga.
When I was sixteen years old, my father took me to Eastern Market for the first time, just before Christmas. It was only 4:30 or 5 by the time we arrived, but the sun was almost completely absent from the December sky. We parked just off of Penn Ave, and walked through the market stalls. Pots of cider were brewing, Christmas trees were being trimmed and wrapped, a smiling grey-haired lady making soap was barking over the crowd at how her lavender blend is strong but gentle, and two Senegalese men showed me how they make and prepare shea butter. Suddenly, shopping at the local mall wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted to feel like the gifts I gave my friends and loved ones were things I had to go hunting for. I wanted adventure to be involved. Here’s where you can have an adventure of your own:
One of the District’s oldest surviving markets. There are butchers here who can find you the right cut of meat for the big roast. There are bakers here who have holiday cookies better than your grandmother made. There’s even blueberry buckwheat pancakes, if you’re still hungry. And wrapping around the whole building are stalls upon stalls of artisans and crafty-folk, who have unique gifts you can’t find at Crystal City. And just across the street from the market are two indispensable gems: Silk Road, and Capitol Hill Books. The former is a shop run by a Turk named Mehmet, who travels the world twice a year to bring back handmade jewelry and carpets to his store. The later is the best bookshop in the city, and run by an American named Jim, who will sometimes have wine and cheese parties in the shop.
Downtown Holiday Market
For a few weeks, on F Street between 7th and 9th, at the foot of the National Portrait Gallery, the broad sidewalk is dominated by stalls and tents. The street plays host to a sprawling open-air market. It’s cramped on the weekends, but you can find the same merchants there throughout the week. Stop by on your way home from work, if you like. Be sure to drop a dollar or twenty in the bucket on the musician’s stage while you’re there. I might be one of them.
I guarantee you’ve walked right past this shop at least twelve times without even noticing it. And why would you? You were probably drunk from your Thursday night adventure at the Big Hunt, and staggering toward the welcoming neon glow of the Krispy Kreme. It’s okay. I forgive you, and so does Proper Topper. They have a lot more than hats, you know. Look inside this tiny shop for one-of-a-kind presents.
I’m of the belief that the Holidays and massive quantities of food go hand-in-hand. When I was younger, my mother would shoo everyone out of the kitchen to give her space, and let her make Christmas dinner in peace. Of course, this would only last about two or three hours before she would start yelling at me, and ask why I wasn’t helping her with the vegetables. My mother, who is a beautiful and brilliant chef, showed me several tricks whenever these large feasts came around. For instance, do you remember how much bacon you cooked for breakfast? Do you remember how much leftover bacon fat you have? Have you considered how you could use that to grease the baking trays instead of wasting more butter? Here are the kinds of dishes I either learned from my mother at Christmas, or just from being in her kitchen. All of them are wonderful additions to a big Holiday spread.
Light, fluffy, full of butter, and soaks up gravy wonderfully. It’s easy as hell– Eggs, cream (or milk, if you really want), and a bit of flour. Beat the hell out of the batter to aerate the whole of it, then stir in chives, salt, black pepper, maybe a pinch of paprika, and definitely the juices from the roasting tray. Pop it into a screaming hot oven (450f ought to do it). Serve, and enjoy the food of the gods.
How about some hardcore roughage to even out the unreasonable amount of red meat you just consumed? Cool. Get a bag of brussels sprouts, cut each of them in half, cover them in olive oil and dried onion, and put them into the same oven you just put your Yorkshire pudding into. Flip them once, and pull them out once they’ve all carmelized around the outside. You want them crispy. Oh, and how about a sauce? Two parts sour cream, one part stone ground mustard, and add chili, garlic, onion, chives, and whatever else you like to season it.
You will never find a more divisive dish at Christmas time than the mashed potato. Everyone’s preference is different. Lumpy or creamy? Boxed or real potatoes? Cheese or no cheese? Butter or sour cream? Skin on or skin off? The principle of the dish doesn’t change, but there is so much variation in the recipe. For this reason, and for its deliciousness, it deserves a place on this list. Quite personally, for as much as I love mashed potatoes at dinner, I love them even more when the leftovers are mixed with eggs, flour, and cream, then fried in a skillet. Leftover latkes. Serve those with applesauce.
Andre: Maybe adding a protein, like how to do a simple brined and roasted pork loin or pot roast, would balance it out a bit.
Jonny: How do most people fuck it up at home, and how can it be avoided?
Andre: Not getting a proper sear! Whether its an oven sear, or literally taking it to a sauté pan first. Overcooking, too. It should always be pulled out at internal temp around 120-125. Oh, and not being allowed to rest before cutting. Its such a technically simple dish that there aren’t even many other opportunities to mess up.
Why the hell do we drink eggnog? No one knows. Purpose and intention are important, especially when there are so few daylight hours this time of year. In a recent conversation with my good friend Mike Johnstone, GM of Nanny O’Briens, we discussed some ideal Christmas or Holiday drinks, and the purpose thereof.
Jonny: What’s a good Holiday drink, and why do we drink it? Something seasonal without being over-the-top and cheesy?
Mike: Do you mean a cocktail, or a flavored beer, or something?
Jonny: Anything. You tell me.
Mike: Definitely an Old Fashioned. A good rye, like Templeton, or Whistlepig if you’re fancy definitely adds some spice. The orange adds a nice Chirstmas note to it, and the cherry allows it to be sweet without being a dessert.
Jonny: What’s the point of a good drink around this time of year?
Mike: I think it makes being around family easier, y’know? You’re already there physically. It doesn’t mean you have to be completely mentally present for it.
With tat in mind, here’s some other Holiday consumables that will leave you with a nice, warm, fuzzy, I-don’t-want-to-yell-let’s-all-be-nice-kind-of-feeling:
I was in Los Angeles recently, celebrating Thanksgiving at my girlfriend’s sister’s place. While I was getting a few side dishes ready, Jennifer told I should try this funny little cocktail, and I immediately fell in love. Champagne with a splash of spiced apple cider, in a flute rimmed with cinnamon sugar. This drink is dangerous, and will likely have you on your ass before noon.
This is an old drink. Like two millennia-old. Take some table wine, drop it into a pot, turn the heat on low, and add it orange slices, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, lemon wedges… and time. Let it steep gently, and let the aroma fill your house. This is less common in the US, but well-known and well-loved in Germany and Austria. I like their name for it better than the English variety: Glühwein, (pronounced “glue-vine”) translates pretty accurately into “glowing wine.”
Another old one. I like this, particularly because it’s both a verb and a noun. Traditionally, to go “wassailing,” is to go from house to house in the rich part of town, cup in hand, bang down to the doors of the wealthy, sing on their doorstep, and demand food and drink. The wassail is brewed to not only lift the spirits of the singers, but also to bless the apple trees, and ensure a good harvest the following year. My recipe differs slightly, but it certainly serve the same purpose. Half-gallon of apple cider, one bottle of cinnamon whiskey, about a quart of black tea, add honey and spices as you see fit. Drink, sing, and enjoy.
Whether you’re going door to door and singing, or you’re quietly humming to yourself in the kitchen, here are some songs for the season. Stay warm, and stay bright.