Besides Boston, Washington, D.C. has to be my favorite American city. Its decidedly European feel makes for some pretty picturesque wandering, not to mention the whole “nation’s capital” thing it has going on. For Netflix junkies like me, I can’t help but imagine Frances Underwood popping up around every corner, on his way to some nefarious dealing. While perhaps not an obvious choice for a toddler-toting family vacay, it turns out to be a surprisingly perfect choice. Thankfully, an invitation to attend a wedding in the heart of D.C. gave us the prod we needed to re-acquaint ourselves with the city that we had only previously seen through the eyes of a newlywed couple.
Back then, we had all the time in the world to delight in the cherry-blossoms and explore the museums on our own schedule, according to no one’s whims but our own. My, how our whims have changed. Strolling through the beautiful streets of Georgetown? Nope. Sipping our way through the café-culture of Dupont Circle? Nopenope. This time, we were all about being responsible parents and tourists. We were going to take Z to see every last national treasure if it meant the end of us, gosh darn it.
Well, our end was pretty much met. The trusty pedometer on my iphone confirmed our having completed more than a marathon’s worth of mileage on foot over the span of two days. That may not sound terribly impressive to you all, but it might, if you account for the fact that we were simultaneously pushing along a be-strollered toddler and I (idiotically) chose to pack a thoroughly chic but unsensible pair of ballet flats as my “walking shoe.”
*smacks head, à la Homer Simpson*
Nonetheless, we accomplished what we set out to do. No, it wasn’t relaxing in the least, but yes, we got wicked cultured, indeed. By these standards, it’s fair to say that this particular jaunt qualified as a trip, not a vacation. We hit every spot on our Responsible-Parent List and chose to reward ourselves for this feat with some serious comestibles.
Top three gastronomic D.C. tips:
1. Raiding the snack section of the local Whole Foods. Yes, I know I can snark it up like crazy when I feel inclined to share my truest feelings about “Whole Paycheck”. That being said, travel might very well be the only scenario in which it is more economical to stock up on provisions from Whole Foods than to hand over $15 for the ubiquitous greasy “french fries and chicken fingers combo” at the zoo snack stand. We stocked up on bagels, trail mix, and even cheese to stave off our hunger at the super touristy spots where the food tends to be pretty miserable, anyway.
2. Astronaut ice cream. If you are in D.C. and happen to have a child…which, if you’re reading this, you probably do…then you already know that the Air and Space Museum is a must-see. Now, I’m not gonna lie…this was way more of an experience for Z and my husband. They flitted about from one exhibit to the next like a couple of science-crazed hummingbirds. I was left with the empty stroller, lamely attempting to trail my NASA-fied version of Frick and Frack, and marveling at the realization that my 6’5” husband could, indeed, “flit about” with the best of ’em. So, as incredibly shallow as it might sound, the highlight for me was watching Z experience astronaut ice cream. At a pretty expensive $6.50, we declared that this would be Z’s souvenir for the D.C. trip, should she agree to it. Thankfully, she did. She couldn’t resist the idea of trying the “ice cream in space”. While the gift shop boasted a surprisingly vast collection of flavors, Z (with some cajoling from my husband) chose the cookies n’ cream ice cream sandwich.
We couldn’t wait to watch her take her first bite, and ended up tearing into the package as soon as we were safely out of sight of the hawk-eyed “no food in museum” monitor. It was so worth it. Z giggled as she ate, which of course made my husband and I giggle as we watched her eat. The darling girl even graciously offered each of us a bite so we could experience ice cream in chalk form for ourselves. Yay. As we brushed the plentiful crumbs off Z’s shirt, my husband and I exchanged that look that clearly read, “she thinks we’re such cool parents right now.”
As I write this I find myself wondering if this will work when she’s fifteen. Yeah, probably not.
3. Keren, an Eritrean restaurant. When we asked our D.C. native friends about recommendations for anything…not just restaurants, mind you…the very first things out of both of their mouths was “Keren restaurant.” Upon further research (Googling proximity to hotel), we were thrilled to see that it was a short, four-minute walk from our hotel. For our trek-weary feet, that seemed just barely manageable, yet we persevered and were rewarded with a truly memorable meal for all of us.
We knew right away that we struck gold upon surveying the restaurat’s entirely full-to-capacity state. Clearly, it was a popular spot and the smell indicated as to why that was the case. It was aromatic in a way I couldn’t put my finger on-some sort of Indian subcontinent, Arab hybrid. Imagine ras-el-hanout meets curry powder*. Sort of. Whatever it was, I just remember thinking, “I likey.”
*FYI: that spice blend, as we later found out, is called berbere.
Granted, Eritrean food may not be as familiar as its Ethiopian counterpart, but they are largely similar. Both are served on a round pillow of Injera, a bread used in the place of utensils to scoop up food. It was once best described to me as “ace bandage-y” in texture. While I don’t think that sounds appetizing, you have to believe me when I say it was, and Z was beyond entertained with exploiting the texture of the bread by stretching it out and watching it spring back, in between mouthfuls of food.
I admit I was worried about whether or not Z would like the flavors or be open to the presence of so many different textures, but she did great. I’m not going to lie and say she gobbled up every last bite, but she ate a lot of the dishes that she liked. We were totally ok with that, since she happily tried everything at least once. Z’s favorite, by far, was the shiro, a thick stew made with chickpea flour. The rest, sadly, we don’t know the names of, as they were simply part of the “vegetarian combo” we ordered. One was a kind of braised cabbage, another spinach, while the others were different lentil preparations.
While the food was undeniably scrumptious, the interactive-ness of the meal will probably remain the biggest standout in Z’s memory. I don’t think she’ll look back and remember that it was Eritrean, or even the name of the bread she loved playing with. I just like to think that maybe one day she’ll smell berbere spices emanating from a kitchen vent somewhere, and find some familiarity in it. That would make me really happy.