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Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

crabs

One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

crab roll

Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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Tasting A Little Bit of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Local Goodness

DC’s local food scene is spreading like wildfire, from the do-it-yourselfers at Grey DC to the homey classiness of Seasonal Pantry.  But nobody does it quite like Smucker Farms of Lancaster County, a haven devoted to all things (but especially the food) from slice of the state that is famous for its Amish and Mennonite residents and traditions.

Smucker Farms was founded to bring the products of agrarian Lancaster County to the bustling market of Washington, DC.  Almost the entire store is stocked with products from the county, with the exceptions of some farms and vendors in southeast Pennsylvania that are not within the county line, as well as a handful of local DC products (such as Gordy’s pickles).

The variety of goods is impressive—you can get everything from spices to breads to meat to produce to tomato and other sauces to condiments.  And, of course, the apple butter and shoofly pie for which Amish country is known.  I also liked some of the out-of-the-ordinary products like shrub, a beverage with colonial roots that is “created when fruit is preserved in vinegar, sweetened with sugar and then mixed with water or spirits.”   The store also has soaps and lotions, wooden furniture and kids’ toys, and even a few seasonal cookbooks.

Lancaster Farms works with a farmer’s cooperative to ensure that there are no hiccups in the sourcing and distribution process, and also to provide a CSA that can be picked up at the store.  The cooperative, Oasis at Bird-in-Hand, is run by the quintessentially Amish trio of Dale Stoltzfus, Elmer Lapp, and Leroy Miller.

Technically, all goods from Lancaster County are local, considering that the county seat is approximately 120 miles from DC and the southern tip of the county is even closer.  If you’re looking for local food and products that come from a community that values traditional farming, this is the place for you.

To visit:  2118 14th St. NW, 202-986-7332.  Open every day 9am-9pm.  U Street Metro or many buses.

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Santa Fe Cafe: Savoring the Flavors of the Land of Enchantment

Your faithful blogger just returned from a delightful holiday vacation in Taos, New Mexico.  Feeling a desperate need for green chile after having consumed it three times a day for a week, she scoured the DC food blogs for a reminder of the 47th state.

 

And that’s how she found the Santa Fe Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, one of the only New Mexican restaurants in the DC metro area (the Anita’s chain is another option for the Virginians out there).  The place was founded in 1988 by Kip Laramie, who was quick to plead modesty by stating that he was “cautious about saying it’s authentic” due to the distinct differences in food and flavors within the state itself.

New Mexican food is best known by the importance placed on both red and green chile sauces.  While other ingredients like posole, blue corn, and sopapillas also make New Mexican cuisine unique, the chile is the star ingredient.  (The fact that a Chile Pepper Institute exists at New Mexico State University should give you a clue as to how devoted New Mexicans are to their prima donna).

Santa Fe Cafe obliges spicy die-hards with entrees featuring either Hatch green chiles or Chimayo red chile sauce, like rellenos, enchiladas, and burritos.  Or, if something else on the menus entices you, a bowl of the soupy mixture comes on the side for just $1 extra.  Vegetarians will be relieved to know that both the green and red chile are meat-free, unlike many establishments that include beef or pork.  Unfortunately, no New Mexican beers are offered at Santa Fe Cafe, but a number of good microbrews and Mexican beers make up the drink list.

It’s good to know that many a native New Mexican has found the place legit—a wall in the entryway features signed headshots of famous New Mexican leaders like Governor Bill Richardson, Senators Tom Udall and Pete Domenici, and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan.  Lujan’s authograph states that the café’s food is “just like mom’s cooking.”

Another great aspect of the restaurant is its emphasis on décor.  Traditional New Mexican ornaments like pottery, ristas (strings of chiles hung to dry), images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and gorgeous rugs line the walls.  San Pasquale, the patron saint of cooking, is also featured prominently.  In particular I appreciated the stuffed armadillo that hangs perilously from an old speaker high above an unsuspecting booth.

DC is a haven for out-of-towners, but sometimes you just need a taste of your home state.  Luckily, Santa Fe Café is here to satisfy the needs of our very own New Mexican diaspora—or at least those of us who hope to return soon.

To visit:  1500 Wilson Ave., Arlington, VA.  703-276-0361. A few blocks from the Rosslyn Metro, Dupont/Georgetown circulator, and 38B bus.  Closed Sundays, and no breakfast/lunch on Saturdays.

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“Fermentation Without Representation”: Touring DC’s First Brewery In 50 Years

Much to many a beer snob’s dismay, Washington, D.C. has never really been a beer town—according to the Kojo Nnamdi show, “It’s been more than 50 years since a production brewery operated inside D.C.”   Sure, there are plenty of beer bars and a smashing Beer Week, but we haven’t had beer to call our own in most DC residents’ lifetimes.  Until now.  In the past several months, both Chocolate City Beer (opened in August) and DC Brau Brewing Company (opened in April) have started up within the District, and DC Brau has opened its doors to tours, a tasting room, and the chance to meet the brewmasters.

 

I should note here that there are some great breweries very close to DC, such as Port City Brewing in Alexandria and Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick.  Also, there are some excellent brewpubs in the area, like Franklin’s brewery and restaurant in Hyattsville (which we covered previously) and Capitol City and Gordon Biersch with various locations.  These are restaurants and brewpubs rather than production facilities.

DC Brau is located off of Bladensburg Road in northeast DC.  It is in tucked away in an unassuming strip mall, and the unlabeled entrance is approached from the back.  The doors enter into a small tasting room, with tables, couches, and plenty of beer-related schwag.  When I toured, three beers were on tap to sample and fill grolwers—a pale ale, a stout, and a Belgian white.  Currently only 6-packs of the pale ale are being sold, but the staff told me they hope to expand that selection by the end of the year.

Tours, which are held only on select Saturdays, last approximately 20 minutes and are led by one of the handful of DC Brau employees.  This means that you’ll get a true first-hand take at what running a brewery looks like on a day-to-day basis.  Our tour guide literally went through his day, starting at 9am, showing us exactly what he does every hour.

On the tour you will see machines for heating up water and beer, adding hops and other ingredients, and cooling down the beer once it has boiled.  Also interesting is the canning machine—DC Brau is using cans for its 6-packs rather than glass bottles for environmental, fiscal, and quality of taste reasons.  If you’re lucky, the staffer giving your tour will show new experiments that the brewmasters are undertaking, such as a bourbon stout fermenting in wine barrels.

Touring DC Brau was great fun, and felt very personal.  It’s places like this that make DC feel small, and that you are very much a part of something new and exciting.

To visit:  3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE, 202-621-8890.  Open most Saturdays 1-4pm, tours at 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30.  Best with a car or maneuver the B2, B8, B9, or H6 buses.

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Hanging Out Up on 14th at The Highlands Café and Grill

The Highlands Café in Petworth (not to be confused with Highland Origin Coffee in Silver Spring) is a charming neighborhood spot that is unassuming on the outside and colorfully artsy on the inside.  Located on 14th Street between Crittenden and Decatur, this is one of “it” spots in the 14th Street Heights neighborhood.  Didn’t know that there was a 14th Street Heights district in DC?  Neither did I, so that’s another good reason to go up there and hit some of the other local staples along the way—Districto Federal, the Red Derby, etc.

The most memorable quirk about this coffee shop/restaurant/bar is its long mural on the southern wall, depicting the life-cycle of coffee from the berry-picking to the barista-ing to its enjoyment by friends.  Along with its mainstay beverage The Highlands also boasts brunch and dinner menus that seem a bit ambitious for such a small place, but the results are great—hearty, Southern-style meals with a smattering of vegetarian options.  I was a fan of the towering smoothies!

According to the mission on its website, The Highlands is trying very hard to not just be another relatively funky coffee shop in our city, but a place where patrons can interact with management and feel ownership over the location.  I can only speak to my Saturday afternoon visit, but I was very impressed with the variety of clientele, from older men reading newspapers to young Millenials rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, but the best thing is that they all clearly were residents of the neighborhood.  In my opinion, this kind of community-oriented local watering hole is just what DC needs more of!

To visit:  4706 14th St. NW, 202-829-6200.  Moderate walk from Petworth or Columbia Heights Metros, or the 52 and 54 buses will drop you outside the door.

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