Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eating at the Crossroads of Salvation and Soul - Horace and Dickie's

The restaurant world is not, we all know, a meritocracy, where hard work and culinary excellence is always rewarded with riches and praise, and where gastronomic charlatanism is met with a swift serrated knife across the throat.  Rather, the restaurant world of today appears to operate under the governance of a loose and gin-soaked confederacy of a few, well-placed taste makers and trend setters, who, in another time and place, would have been relegated to the marginal indigency of eeking out a living as pickpockets, snake oil salesmen, and tubercular side-show carnies, but who, instead, lucked into the gilded age of Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri, where culinary mediocrity is championed, and where celebrity—not the quiet, dignified, gastronomic greatness of Jacques Pepin or Charlie Trotter—is prized above all else.  Better to have a string of middlebrow (if incredibly busy) sandwich places or tapas joints (and that much-coveted cookbook deal and guest spot on Today) than a single (if maybe not-always-so-busy) flagship restaurant located in an inner-city back alley, whose daily attempts to redefine cuisine as we know it (not to mention trying to reimage the very experience of eating in a restaurant) draws comparisons with the early passions of a chair-throwing Marco Pierre White, or better, elicits rare and reverent silences from industry professionals who make the business of cooking and serving food the stuff of their daily lives. 

The apparent triumph of culinary mediocrity is more insidious than that.  It’s more odious than having celebrity chefs pimp overpriced pizza or hawk their anemic take on a bowl of ramen (as the proto-Asian component of their branding efforts demand, no less) to a seemingly lobotomized legion of slack-jawed eaters who will line-up fifty deep to clap like seals over the dubious pleasure of seeing a former Top Chef contender make a fucking taco.  The triumph of culinary mediocrity is made truly sinister by the fact they have somehow managed to change how we (that’s you and me, boy-o) now talk about food.  They’ve won because they’ve hijacked the entire discussion; for the last few years, those of us in the industry (as well as the media and eating public riding the bench on the near periphery) have been obsessed (I, for one, will cop to the charge) with debating, ad nauseam and in infinitum, the implications of celebrity on cuisine, on eating, on its impact on the industry as a whole, when, really, we should have just been talking about food all along.  Food. Where it comes from.  How it’s cooked.  How it tastes.  Nothing less.  Nothing more.  Food.  The fact that I, for one, would Tweet (and joyously so) about the theft of Guy Fieri’s Lamborghini at the hands of a wannabe-murderous seventeen year old, for example, makes me complicit in the whole shell game of food celebrity.  I’m the problem.  It’s not Guy Fieri, folks.  It’s me.  Christopher Freeman.  Wringing my hands over the likely fact that none of the Food Network “chefs” could produce, on command, and under pain of death, a halfway decent bĂ©chamel or bĂ©arnaise, is a greater sin, I believe, than Guy Fieri, looking like a bloated Cory Feldman (is there any other kind?), driving around, aimlessly, in a stupid red car, pretending to like everyone he meets, and everything he eats, duuude. 

My own (admittedly) myopic fixation on the culinary transgressions perpetrated the Food Network’s moronic inferno (stand up and be counted Sandra; you, too, Bobby boy) has done the food world (the few out there, like you, who abide to suffer my vitriol on the subject) a disservice; I’ve done it bad, I’ve done it wrong. 

But how to atone?

Lucky for me, benediction in the food world is a no-brainer.  I knew what I had to do.

I went to church.  I went on a Sunday as every sinner seeking redemption must.  But this was not just any church, mind you.  This house of worship, located in Washington, D.C.’s once deeply-troubled neighborhood of lower North East, sits squarely that fabled and proverbial culinary crossroads miraculously devoid of all restaurant-scene pretension and foodie-speak bullshit, and is operated by men and women of gastronomy’s purest faith, those cooks who wake, daily, with no other design in their hearts than to bring the most delicious, most affordable food for whomsoever should require nourishment (albeit the deep-fried variety) that acts—instantly, upon first swallow, and as deeply as the taking of Communion—as salve and salvation for the troubled soul.  It’s at the root of why they call it soul food, yo.

Horace and Dickie’s stands, as it has since 1990, as temple and shrine of culinary redemption for eaters just like me hungry for reprieve (however brief) from the ego-driven lunacy of the restaurant world.  Horace and Dickie’s is tiny, sure, and carry-out only, and has been burglar-proofed with the iron bars bolted across all its windows, but it’s also redolent of fresh-fried seafood; it’s patronized by some of the loveliest people in all D.C., and the joint is as effortlessly cool as Lester Young’s own porkpie hat.    

I arrived on a sunny mid-morning just as area churches were letting out.  The men and women crowding the walk-up counter in front of me were dressed in their Sunday best (suits and sunbonnets) and were as charitable to me (the lone white guy among them) as parishioners welcoming a new congregant into the fold.  I smiled and ordered:  the fish sandwich and three sides.  Collard greens.  Slaw.  Macaroni and cheese.  What I received was a Styrofoam clamshell in which two slices of white sandwich bread (perfect facsimiles of Wonder) had been topped with four enormous fresh-from-the-fryer (of which they have three) fillets of incredible-smelling fish.  Can I please get an amen?

I paid and sat on the lone bench in front of Horace and Dickie’s and ate (for a time) with a plastic fork, and when that fork failed me (by breaking in two under the enormous heft of my lunch, no less), I ate caveman style, with my bare hands, licking fry oil and melted cheese off my fingers for all the world to see.  The fish was, in a word, divine:  imagine whiting (likely some truly delicate variety of Atlantic cod) tossed in a light corn meal, then deep fried three-to-four minutes to that moist, flaky perfection of golden “friedness” to which we home cooks and Louis Jordan aspirants try (and often fail) on our own Saturday night fish fries.  The sides were equally surprising:  both the mac-and-cheese and cole slaw were clearly made in-house, and tasted as if they had come straight out of your grandmother’s kitchen.  The greens, while obviously canned (Horace and Dickie’s does not contain the culinary square footage required to accommodate cooking bushels of greens), did contain enough bacon fat to successfully flirt with being, well, good.

And while the sides were each, in of themselves, minor masterpieces in comfort food, it was the fish I returned to again and again, bite after bite taking me back to the Southern fried fish of my Missouri boyhood, where chefs were then known simply as cooks, and where the very success of their cuisine was measured not in Beard awards or how brightly the stars of their celebrity might shine, but simply on how the food tasted, how it enriched the body, how it enlived the mind, and how it restored the eater, overall, for having eaten it.  Horace and Dickie’s is such a place.  It’s a return to a time and place where eating was an act of affirmation of a shared and collective culinary culture, an act of restoration for the body, for the soul. 

Eating food like that purveyed at Horace and Dickie’s makes better people of its eaters for the experience of standing in line with perfect strangers just back from church and ordering the food of a culture very different than your own demands of that eater a level of humility, cultural open-mindedness, even gastronomic supplication, that can’t help but produce the kind of generosity of spirit that’s good for people and even better for the wider waking world.  Is there better fried fish to be had other than the truly delicious stuff coming out the kitchen of Horace and Dickie’s?  Likely, yes.  But that’s not the point.  The point here, friend-o, is that there are some restaurants that demand your patronage for the pure and simple fact that they’re still here.  Horace and Dickie’s is in the white-hot center of Northeast D.C.’s “H” Street corridor gentrification project, and it’s being threatened by that non-native and highly invasive species of urban jackass known as the hipster.  Horace and Dickie’s is surrounded by them—they’re fucking everywhere—and they bring with them sky-high rents and a cultural white noise that simply kills culinary sanctuaries like Horace and Dickie’s.

So go, now, before it’s too late, before the fuckheads in the white belts and the skinny jeans win the day.  Go before they turn Horace and Dickie’s into a Starbucks or a place to buy yoga mats and fruit smoothies.  Go and order the fish, eat the fried chicken, and eat on the park bench out front, because if you do, I promise you this:  you will eat really cheap, really good soul food produced in a glorious little restaurant where no one, and I mean no one, will ever bother you with the Beard Awards or make mention of Guy fucking Fieri.  You have my word on that.

Your link to Horace and Dickie's:  Home

Reader's Note:  And you know that after all the smack I've talked about the Food Network, were they ever to call, I'd gladly buy a red car, dye my hair blonde, stock up on Ed Hardy shirts, and start throwing fake gang signs at anyone who would give me the time of day.  Cuz that's how we roll, yo.

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