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January 14, 2009

Starting Off At The Chili Bowl

Obama Ben's Chili Bowl 2.jpg

In 2001, Ben and Virginia’s son commented on the changes: “You hear comments. Even the white customers. They want to think they’re the only whites who’d been hip enough to go to the Chili Bowl. Now they look around and there are a lot of other whites and they are not so happy about it.”

– From Ben’s Chili Bowl Wikipedia entry, the only business in the U Street corridor believed to have survived the ‘68 riots as well as the building of the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station.

Cosby Fenty MTP.jpg

MR. GREGORY: I, I want–just yesterday, here at the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl–ever heard of it?

MR. COSBY: Oh, boy.

MAYOR FENTY: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: Who was there, but our mayor with the president-elect. Now, they go inside. Hold on, hold on.

MR. COSBY: I’m out of here.

MR. GREGORY: No, no, no, no. Bill Cosby…

MR. COSBY: No, man.

MR. GREGORY: …listen to what happens inside. The president-elect goes inside and asks this question:

(Videotape, Saturday)

PRES.-ELECT OBAMA: What’s a half-smoke?

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: What is a half-smoke? He goes to Ben’s Chili Bowl and asks, “What’s a half-smoke?” Can you believe that?

MR. COSBY: I’m taking my vote back.

MR. GREGORY: Well, there’s something else you should know.

MR. COSBY: Well–uh-oh.

MR. GREGORY: There’s something else you should know.

MR. COSBY: You starting stuff, man.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Now, wait a second…

MAYOR FENTY: This is why…

MR. COSBY: You don’t look like this kind of person.

MR. GREGORY: In Ben’s Chili Bowl it says “Who eats for free at Ben’s? Bill Cosby and no one else.” But during the 2008 race they’ve changed it: “Who eats for free at Ben’s? Bill Cosby and the Obama family.” You’re not alone.

MAYOR FENTY: David, you know, he said backstage that Obama hadn’t earned it.

MR. COSBY: Not only, not only that, Mr. Loose Lips, I am saying also that the only–there are two people, Michelle and his mother-in-law. I don’t mind them. But he has not earned it. Got to come a long way, Jack, before you can have…

MAYOR FENTY: See, the president’s not big enough.

MR. COSBY: But, but the mayor brought him to try to boost his name and put it on the thing.

REP. WATERS: Oh!

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Unbelievable.

MR. COSBY: And his name, he’s a…

MAYOR FENTY: Cosby’s upset because I had the first half-smoke at the new baseball stadium, the first Ben’s Chili Bowl.

MR. COSBY: And you raised, you raised the half-smoke and said “I beat Bill Cosby.” That’s what you said.

– from ‘Meet the Press’ transcript / January. 11, 2009

Obama Fenty.jpg Obama Ben's Chili Bowl 3.jpg
(click for full size)

Hearing that the long time white customers disrespect the new wave of white customers at Washington’s famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, and that Obama didn’t even know what a half-smoke was, and Cosby didn’t feel Barack had earned the right to eat free at Ben’s, whereas Michelle and her mother had, I feel a lot more comfortable wondering about the Obama- Fenty handshake in front of the street named after the owners that fed black activists and police and firemen alike back in ‘68 and thinking about what seems like a different posture and manner in the Mayor and the President-elect than how Obama looks when he’s hanging out, say, with Hillary Clinton.

And yes, I’m ready to assume my fate (according to The Atlantic’s lead piece in its “State of the Union” special) as an uncool, culturally bereft white guy (even more an outlier writing from L.A., especially in this mid-January 80º Santa Ana weather), looking at the incoming Administration through the viewfinder of race while becoming comfortable just asking a lot of questions.

(images 1, 3 & 4: Jim Young/Reuters. Washington January 10, 2009. image 2: Brendan Smialowski/AP. Jan. 11, 2009. Washington)

  • http://theforgottenwar.blogspot.com Sergei Andropov

    That is a great top picture. It would scream “Elitist!” were it not for the fact that it was shot inside “Ben’s Chili Bowl”.
    By the way, what is a “half-smoke”?

  • jtfromBC

    ‘A half-smoke is a type of sausage found in the United States capital of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding region. A half-smoke is similar to a regular hot dog, but slightly larger, spicier and with more coarsely ground meat; it is usually grilled but can be found steamed.’
    additional info @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-smoke

  • Asta

    A half-smoke is a type of sausage found in the United States capital of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding region. A half-smoke is similar to a regular hot dog, but slightly larger, spicier and with more coarsely ground meat; it is usually grilled but can be found steamed. — Wikipedia
    I’ve been looking for a copycat recipe for the chili.

  • La Cabeza

    Two things, Michael:
    1) That style of “handshake” has nothing to do with being of African descent. It’s gone global. Witness this Serb and this Croat:

    http://www.daylife.com/photo/0d4z37KcTu2mS
    2) What the heck *is* a half-smoke? Some kind of reference to smoked sausage?

  • jtfromBC

    This pic might also express curiosity in view of O’s stated ignorance about a half-smoke.

  • Progressive Mom

    Hey there, LA outlier, if you want to feel that same what-are-you-doing-here feeling on your coast, find a traditional Southern “soul food” lunch place in the Inglewood/Culver City area. I moved 11 years ago, but there was a fabulous place back then that served the best fried chicken with mac and cheese and collard greens. I was a white regular in an African-American diner, and was treated like any regular — really well. But stumble-in tourists who read about the spot in some magazine did get the look being given by the young woman in the blue hat and scarf in these photos: why are you here and when are you leaving?
    Either way, either coast: the food’s still great.

  • Ursula L

    I find it rather disturbing that Obama (or anyone!) should be disparaged for asking a simple, straightforward question when confronted with something they don’t know.
    Curiosity is good. A willingness to recognize and correct one’s own ignorance is good. While willingness to try a new variety of sausage isn’t going to make a difference in the course of world history, I find the reported question to be reassuring – if he’s willing to risk making a fool of himself in public over a silly question about a sausage, then he won’t think twice about asking for information about other, bigger issues, helping ensure he has the information to make better decisions.
    I don’t think Shrub asked even one honest question for purposes of getting information in the past 8 years. We finally have someone with brains enough to know that he has things to learn, and he gets mocked for asking questions? That’s very, very wrong.

  • alterlinguist
  • dogfood

    I don’t watch MTP, having nothing but disgust for Gregory, but this is beyond ridiculous. They actually PAY people to go on television and talk about something so utterly moronic? Pa thet ic.
    I wish O would stop schmoozing around public places. What the hell is he still doing that for now that the campaign is over? If he wants to eat that kind of crap, can’t he send out for it? He must be the Secret Service’s worst nightmare.

  • Ursula L

    I wish O would stop schmoozing around public places. What the hell is he still doing that for now that the campaign is over? If he wants to eat that kind of crap, can’t he send out for it? He must be the Secret Service’s worst nightmare.
    Well, part of his job is to be aware of and respond to the needs of the ordinary people of this country. Being physically isolated is contrary to this obligation – he can’t know the mood of the people while living in a bubble.
    We’ve seen the effects of this isolation with Bush – he lives in his safe little bubble, and is very unaware of the effects of his decisions and the unpopularity of his policies. Protests are kept out of his sight, and the needs of the American people (and the people of the rest of the world) are completely abstract to him.
    Security is a concern, but if it becomes the dominant concern, the ability of the president to carry out his job is compromised.

  • Susan Abe

    Worth noting in the top photo — there’s something in Obama’s hand besides the basket. I’m guessing he didn’t eat free.

  • zatopa

    Is it worth mentioning that Cosby makes it radiantly clear that he really didn’t want to talk about this?

  • http://hippocratesinsandiego.com SDMike

    Reading that transcript, I wondered if, by saying that Obama hadn’t earned the right to eat at the Chili Bowl — but his wife and mother-in-law had earned the right — Cosby was referring to Obama’s African, rather than African-American, roots. There is a cultural separation between the descendants of American slaves and more recent African immigrants that is still there, I think.

  • AK

    A half-smoke is whatever the others have posted from Wikipedia. It tastes fantastic! When I was at Howard University, I would have it everyday. I hadn’t known at the time that they don’t even have half-smokes in the DC Suburbs in Maryland! Ugh. And don’t get me started about Baltimorians not knowing what the heck a half-smoke is. They think it’s a smoked sausage and it definitely is NOT! Please someone tell me they at least know what Mambo sauce is.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003935/theRanticore Julia Grey

    Was Cosby being funny, or what?

  • cenoxo

    Was Cosby being funny, or what?
    Yep, and he’s good at it, too. Lighten up, fellow BnN readers.
    Being words sans pictures, the transcript loses much of the lighthearted context of the Ben’s Chili Bowl conversation. If you view the January 11, 2009 Meet the Press video (skip ahead and start at 45:17), you’ll see that Gregory, Cosby, and Fenty are laughing and kidding each other about BHO’s “half-smoke” question. One gets the feeling they’d be kidding Barack face-to-face if he was there, too.
    MTP also plays a brief videotape of Obama (and Fenty) at Ben’s. The only ones who look like they’re not enjoying themselves are the security detail…

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