Dave Jamieson’s 2007 pre-Obama visit investigation of the importance of the half-smoke, and of Ben’s Chili Bowl in particular.
As New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller reportedly quipped while on the hustings in 1969, “No man can hope to get elected in New York state without being photographed eating hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous.” The same can be said for Washington, D.C.’s Ben’s Chili Bowl.
No politician has used chili dogs and half-smokes as shortcuts to D.C. accreditation quite like former Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Long accused of being aloof, overly academic, and insufficiently black, Williams compensated for his lack of common touch by associating himself with Ben’s Chili Bowl at every possible turn. He mentioned the place in his inaugural address, and he made it his first stop after he won office in 1998, according to the Washington Post. In a January 2005 Q-and-A with the Post, Williams cited Ben’s as the “restaurant where my constituents would most likely run into me.” And when he was spotted eating a turkey chili dog there in the summer of the same year, some observers took it as a sign that he might actually seek a third term.
How did Ben’s and the half-smoke become such icons of Washington culture? “As I think about it, I often wonder if Bill Cosby didn’t play a major role,” says Virginia Ali, who co-owns the Chili Bowl with her husband Ben. The story goes that Cosby first came across the half-smoke when he was in the Navy and stationed at Quantico in the 1960s.
When he came to town in 1985 to promote the premiere episode of his soon-to-be-watershed sitcom The Cosby Show, he spent some time at the Chili Bowl being mobbed by fans and telling a reporter how he used to take a young Camille Hanks there on dates. Subsequent press reports about Ben’s often noted how Cosby could devour three of the sausages in a single session. And when Cosby went on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the talk-show host surprised him with a batch of Ben’s half-smokes she’d had brought in for the taping, allowing Cosby to bring a small piece of Washingtoniana into the homes of millions of Americans.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery