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“Try not to find a hot dog down here,” challenges a police officer by the National Portrait Gallery. The man in blue, himself chomping on the most commonly seen food commodity between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, has misunderstood me.
“I was hoping for a good hot dog,” I repeat. The policeman laughs and with the back of his hand wipes mustard from the side of his mouth. “You got that pen?” he asks, readying me to take down directions. “There’s this place by my brother’s house. He lives by Wrigley Field.”
While I trust the policeman’s recommendation is a good one—the four bites he needs to finish his frank tell me he knows what he’s talking about—a trip to Chicago just isn’t an option. For most people who come down to the Mall, satisfying hunger is a mere formality that briefly interrupts a day of tireless sightseeing. I used to think that, ideally, the food for sale on the Mall and the area surrounding it would represent the wide varieties of international cuisines available in this country and its capital. Whatever. Mall customers are tourists. If it’s quality they want, they invariably need a map to find it. One of the few things as American as hot dogs is convenience. Food selection doesn’t matter as much as getting in and out of a museum with your family intact or finding a bench in the shade.
The menus for the permanent food stands located on the Mall and next to the monuments are devised by the United States Park Service and Guest Services Inc., the company that operates the stands. Sue Porter, Guest Services’ marketing communications manager, says that the food sold—mostly candy, soft drinks, sandwiches such as ham and cheese, and hot dogs—caters to the Mall’s clientele, of which she estimates around 90 percent are tourists. Wrapped in a bun that, depending on when and where you order it, can be either soft, stale, or just plain wet, the kosher dogs are wrinkly, thin, and cost $3. For 10 cents less you can get a foot-long, the most popular item, which isn’t any better but is nearly twice the size. At some smaller stands, kraut, relish, and onions—vegetables to a hot-dog eater—aren’t available. Regardless, Delores Pulliam, a manager who has worked for Guest Services in the stands since November 1974, estimates that her company unloaded between 9,000 and 10,000 wieners on the Fourth of July alone.
When a company can move enough hot dogs to fill a small swimming pool in one day (albeit the hands-down busiest day of the year), there are bound to be others who are hungry to get in on the action. While Guest Services has a virtual monopoly on the Mall’s busiest locations (by contract, only Guest Services can do food business on the Mall itself), independent entrepreneurs who operate the omnipresent carts that line the streets surrounding the tourist hotbed are constantly jockeying for position.
The food vendors who inhabit the Mall’s outskirts collectively practice a form of monotony-as-marketing: If you step onto the curb of a block uncertain if you’re hungry or not, there will undoubtedly be four or five vendors, all of them offering virtually the same items, who hope to sway you before you reach the next crosswalk. In the landscape along Constitution Avenue, Independence Avenue, and other Mall streets, the cartoon depictions of hot dogs, pretzels, pizza slices, ice cream snacks, and egg rolls painted on the carts are nearly as ubiquitous as trees.
With so little to distinguish one portable restaurant from the next, location is the fundamental factor dictating sales. One cart operator, stuck close to the Gallery Place Metro stop, well outside the action on the Memorial Day weekend, when we spoke, says that she will generate about a third as much business as her sister, who operates an identical cart at 10th and Constitution.
There are 76 legal spots for vendors to park near the Mall, and only around half of them are designated for food vendors. In order to fairly distribute the rights to real estate, the District’s vending police conduct a monthly placement lottery, in which, according to vending officer Tony Coles, 400 carts (half selling food, half T-shirts and souvenirs) are registered. For one month, each cart vendor is allowed to operate on a certain spot for one, sometimes two days a week. (The other days of the week, the Mall vendors either store their carts or battle for nonlottery spots around town.) If they draw a less than primo spot one time, the thinking goes, there’s always next month.
But the democracy doesn’t always alleviate the sometimes fierce competition between vendors. Last September, the Washington Post reported an incident in which Xuyen Thi Vu had her cart towed from its lucrative location near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Soon after the space was vacated, the Post reported, another vendor took over the spot. Vu was later indicted on charges of conspiracy and arson, along with three others who pleaded guilty in the case, for torching the garage where the competing cart was stored.
Coles says that “the lotteries are established because of fighting among vendors for prime locations.That’s the reason we have lotteries, to stop the fighting and to give everybody the same opportunity to get a vending spot.”
He continues, saying that squabbles occur but rarely escalate to the magnitude seen in the Vu case. “It’s not to the point where it’s outright violence or anything. You may get an argument among one or two vendors, and that’s usually easily settled. If we can’t settle it, then we go to the lottery system, because once they start fighting, then it’s an issue of public safety.”
The vendors as a group hardly seem confrontational. You won’t likely hear the kind of loud sales call that you’d encounter at an amusement park—“Get your hot dogs here!”—from the mouths of any vendor on the Mall. Most are Asian immigrants who speak little English and, judging from the ones I communicated with, have friendly, competitive relationships with their colleagues. Tony, a vendor for over 10 years who will get a computer degree from George Mason at the end of this summer, was lucky enough to draw one of the best locations for his cart, at the corner of 14th and Constitution each Sunday for a month. Even with nearby road construction taking away from his business, he appreciates the opportunity to make cash.
Joanie works for a company that licenses her a small ice cream cart, from which she also sells cold water and umbrella-shaped hats. She tells me that on her day off her employer caught her panhandling along the Mall. “I lost my paycheck on the way home from the subway, and my husband’s out of work.” She says that her employer threatened to fire her because she was begging but agreed to keep her on with a cut in pay. “It’s my business what I do on my day off,” she says. “But I need to work.” (Joanie refused to divulge the name of her employer.)
The upside of the competition for business among vendors is low prices. In terms of hot dogs, the best bets are the half-smokes, which most of the vendors offer. For around two bucks, you get a plump and juicy link, curled into the shape of a smile, that emits the immediately recognizable odor of a hot dog—neither appetizing nor repulsive, just distinct. Ask several vendors which item they’d most recommend, and their answers will undoubtedly
be the same.
What they prefer to eat themselves, however, is another matter entirely.
“I don’t eat hotdogs,” laughs Guest Services’ Pulliam, glancing over at Porter.
“The people who work down here,” Porter says, smiling in agreement, “they don’t even want to throw a hot dog.”
Dorothy Hickson was a regular at Roxanne, the Southwestern restaurant in Adams Morgan. She always ordered the vegetarian black bean chili—a thick and spicy concoction topped with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers. The menu says the chili contains a “secret ingredient,” and Hickson says she “always joked around that it was meat.” On her last visit to Roxanne, a waitress asked Hickson, “Oh, are you ordering that because it’s vegetarian?” She then told Hickson that all the black beans Roxanne serves are soaked in chicken broth—the secret ingredient. “I was horrified,” says Hickson, a vegetarian. “I’m never going back there again.”
When called to confirm if said “secret ingredient” in fact contained fowl, Roxanne owner Diane (who didn’t give her last name) has to check with her cook to find out for sure. Diane says that Roxanne uses vegetable stock. “I’m a vegetarian, too, and I don’t eat chicken stock,” she explains. Then what waitress would tell a customer otherwise? “Obviously one of the waitresses who wants to get fired,” Diane says.
Roxanne Southwestern Cuisine, 2319 18th St. NW. (202) 462-8330. —Brett Anderson
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