As with many folks, my first tastes of food came via my family while growing up here in the Washington, DC area. Primary among those were my mother, Laura Swindell Hemenway, who was raised on a farm next to a creek that empties into the Neuse River in Oriental, NC. She and I both learned about cooking from her mother, Marie Philpot Swindell. Grandmother Swindell had been raised on a plantation in South Carolina, and was a high school math teacher. My mother taught reading in Elementary Schools here in Prince George’s county.
Visiting my grandmother in Oriental, I can well-remember her “dinners” — the large mid-day meals. She usually made biscuits from scratch, and encouraged my sister and I to help. It was at her table I was introduced to grits and sausage, steamed crabs, and fried fish. When I was old enough to catch my own, she would cook the fish and crabs that came out of the Neuse River.
A story was often repeated of my grandfather and I going out in his rowboat and I caught my first crab. Grandmother cooked it and we were getting ready to eat it, but when we opened it up, it was full of mud! Oh, what a disappointment. But I went on to catch many more crabs, usually with a fish-head or chicken-neck on a string hanging from a pier, leaning out with a dip-net to catch the crabs.
I don’t recall my mother ever making biscuits, but did often have grits and sausage for breakfast. The other main breakfast was scrambled eggs, with either bacon or sausage, with milk for us kids and hot tea for my parents. I didn’t become a coffee drinker until I was a teenager, working a job where coffee breaks were part of the routine.
As for dining out, the two biggest influences on my tastes were our family’s frequent visits to Hot Shoppes restaurants, which were run by the Marriotts. They started with a small root-beer stand in 1927 downtown DC, before adding restaurants, and later hotels. The Marriott Corporation is still headquartered in the DC area, but now long out of the standalone-restaurant business and concentrating on managing hotels. At their restaurants I probably had my first onion rings, cheese rolls, and the famous Might Mo burger, a double-decker precursor to the Big Mac; I also fondly remember their fried shrimp, which remains one of all-time favorite dishes to this day.
The Hot Shoppes we used to go to was just inside the D.C. line, on the north corner of South Capitol St., SE and Southern Ave., SE. It had a sit-down restaurant inside, with car-hop service outside, at least in the early days — I guess they got rid of that in the early to mid-‘60s. There’s a gas station and a Chinese carryout restaurant in that location now. There are no more Hot Shoppes, or their fast-food version, called Junior Hot Shoppes, but from time to time the restaurants in one or more of the Marriott Hotels will resurrect some dishes from the menu. Perhaps 10 years or so ago, the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, VA, did that after a restaurant and bar makeover (I lived in that neighborhood for about decade). I was so happy to get a Mighty Mo and onion rings again! Unfortunately, they disappeared from the menu within a few months.
The other restaurant that had a profound affect on my taste-buds were the family visits to Howard Johnson’s restaurants. Of the original 1,000 plus, at this writing, Lake George, NY, has the only one left. But back when I was growing up, we frequently came across them in our travels up and down the east coast. They were famous for their 28 flavors of ice cream, and their fried clam strips, which I loved — they were developed by Jacques Pépin during his tenure at Howard Johnson. The other dish I fell in love with there was New England clam chowder. That is the only kind of clam chowder I want — you can keep that tomato-based stuff.
To be continued… ♦