A Capital Idea - Day Two

On our second day in our nation's capital, we managed to rouse ourselves from our slumber in a more efficient manner, and hit the town while it was still morning, though our hotel and its surrounding neighborhood of DuPont Circle is very elegant, we did not encounter a single open restaurant during our entire walk to the Metro. It was like they had rolled up the sidewalks for the holiday weekend, and we ended up having to grab a pastry from Starbucks to fortify us for the morning's activities.

Justin and I outside the Hirshhorn Museum, next to statues of our zodiac symbols. I think our signs are actually fairly appropriate, considering I'm the stubborn one and he's more easy-going.

Our first stop for the day was the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall, where Justin wanted to see a special exhibit of works by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Contemporary art isn't really my thing, and some of his works were perplexing to me, but I did enjoy his sculptures, which played with surface texture in interesting ways and employed negative space in a compelling way.

His photography seemed sort of mundane by comparison, but there were also several pieces that dealt with the artist's relationship to his homeland, and his problems with the Chinese government. He seemed especially moved by the plight of the children who died in the 2008 earthquake in Szechuan province. Once piece dealing with the tragedy listed the names of all the children who died on a wall, while a voice read them aloud so that they will never be forgotten. Another was a sculpture built from thousands of pieces of rebar salvaged from the buildings that collapsed, which create a sort of fault line of their own.

I was actually more moved by the modern art collection on the third floor, which included a fabulous Gerhardt Richter, several works by Francis Bacon, and a painting by Mark Grotjahn that I particularly enjoyed. Any time I discover a new artist that I can look for in the future, I consider an art museum visit a success, so I was glad that we included the Hirshhorn in our itinerary, even if the Ai Weiwei exhibit didn't especially appeal to me.

Detail of "Rotating Eyes of the Falling Tree Monkey Face 43.35" by Mark Grotjahn.
Since it wasn't quite lunchtime yet, we made a quick jaunt across the Mall to the Museum of American Art to see their collection of paper collages by French artist Henri Matisse. Justin had been to see them the last time he was in DC and had spoken highly of them, so I thought we would squeeze in a visit while we had some time and they happened to be open to the public. You see, to preserve the fragile pigments that were applied to the sheets of paper by Matisse's assistants before he cut them, the exhibit is only open for four hours a day, and even then with very dim lighting,

Is it just me, or does she look like she's menstruating?
I was surprised that the collection was so small; there were four or five pieces at most. I'm not sure that they were worth seeing, but the museum itself was very nice, and full of flower-filled atria, punctuated by tranquil fountains. I didn't have much interest in seeing the rest of the exhibits, however, as I really only enjoy art that was made between the Impressionist era and perhaps the 1970s.

As we were wrapping up there, I received a message from Katie that she would not be joining us for the afternoon after all, as she had had to work that morning and was too tired to go out. She offered to meet us for dinner instead, and though we had made reservations for ourselves to have a romantic dinner at a fancy restaurant, we decided to cancel so that we could spend a little more time with Katie. Since we would now be eating dinner much earlier, however, we decided to expedite our lunch plans so that we would be hungry again in time.

The night before, on our way back to the hotel, I had noticed that we were just down the street from on outpost of Shake Shack, the chain from New York about which I have read endless hype in just about every foodie publication in existence. I really wanted to try it, especially since we never seem to be able to make it to New York, and because Justin is a saint who almost always humors me, we took a huge detour to try it for lunch.

I was able to justify the decision, at least in part, with the fact that there are very few dining options on the Mall besides museum cafeterias, and none of those were going to live up to our experience from the day before. Besides, we had already paid for our Metro pass, I figured we might as well make the most of it.

In a rare turn of events, Shake Shake 100% lived up to the hype, and my resultant expectations. The beef in the burgers was obviously top quality, with excellent flavor, and the patties were cooked, by default, to a lovely shade of pink, not grey. For a fast food burger, they were beyond top-notch, and as Chicagoans, we should be praying that this chain comes our way. They also had great crinkle-cut fries and an incredible cheese sauce for them; Justin and I decided to split an order and soon regretted having to share. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was my shake, which was a little too chocolaty for me (yes, apparently that's possible) and wasn't quite sweet enough.

After our meal, we backtracked to the Mall to see the Museum of American History, where we had to wait in our first real line of the trip. The Mall was packed with people, many of whom were carrying signs from a climate change rally that was going on today. Ironically, I saw many of those signs shoved into trash cans and discarded on the street as litter. Their bearers must not have been all that concerned about sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint after all...

At the museum, we headed straight for the exhibit I had come to see, "Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000." It tells the story of how technological innovations changed the American diet in the 20th century. They explored a number of angles, including mass production, factory farming, the development of artificial fats and sweeteners, and the impact of new transportation methods on both increasing the availability of certain food products and spurring the creation of supermarkets. Oddly, about a third of the exhibit focused on the American wine industry, which seemed like way too much to me. I was forced to question whether they had received major funding from some California winemakers association.

Given all the time and energy I dedicate to reading about food and watching television shows about food, there wasn't all that much for me to learn from the exhibit that I didn't already know. However, I did really enjoy seeing the artifacts on display, including a 1950s-era Krispy Kreme machine that was essential in the development of their assembly line donuts, and an industrial caulking gun used at McDonald's to apply tartar sauce to Filet-o-Fish sandwiches (gross). My favorite, however, was a board containing a range of fifty years worth of travel coffee lids. Each was similar, but different, and it really could have been a contemporary art piece as much as an illustration of how industrial designers have approach the challenge of making hot beverages consumable on the go.

The exhibit also told the story of how television has impacted the way we cook and eat, particularly the impact of Julia Child. Her recreated kitchen is now the centerpiece of this exhibit, and they have props from the show as well as a screen that projects clips from various episodes. Her inspirational appeal is undeniable -- I want to go home and try her recipe for mashed potatoes that includes no less than two entire heads of garlic. In her own words, "Use less and you'll regret it!"

Since I hadn't been to this museum since I was about ten or eleven years old, I wanted to see as much of it as I could, now that I am an adult with an interest in history and four years of experience working at a history museum under my belt. As it turned out, the museum was even open late, so we should have been able to squeeze in more, but the long day of sightseeing, standing, and walking was talking its toll and my back was starting to hurt acutely.

I managed to see the gowns of the First Ladies, the most popular of which is undoubtedly the iconic white gown Michelle Obama wore to her husband's 2008 inaugural ball. I was surprised that there was only one dress from Jackie O., and not even a significant one at that -- it was something she had worn to a White House reception for the Sri Lankan ambassador. Meanwhile, there were three dresses from President Cleveland's wife on display, and two from the wife of Woodrow Wilson. Go figure.

We also made it through the "America at War" exhibit, which dedicated the vast majority of its space to World War II. Having been to the World War II Museum in New Orleans just a year ago, I felt that there wasn't really much for me to learn from the Smithsonian's telling. Mostly, I was shocked by how disproportionate their coverage was of this war compared to other American conflicts. The Civil War got the second most coverage (most of which was not new to me either, after touring the historic battlefields of Virginia with Dad last fall), the Revolutionary War came in third, and Vietnam was fourth, followed by the Cold War. The War on Terror and September 11th had their own gallery, but I was shocked to see that the Spanish American War and the War of 1812 both got more coverage than World War I, which had a meager three cases dedicated to it. I walked around, thinking I was missing something, but apparently that was all they had on this pivotal conflict. I might just have to consider taking a trip to Kansas City to see the World War I Museum itself if I want to learn more about that conflict.

By the time we had finished there, my energy reserves were almost entirely depleted, but I forced myself to walk through the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, as I had not seen the flag since before it underwent a nearly 10 year restoration process from 1999 to 2008. I have to admit, I was taken aback by its poor condition after all those years of restoration. Apparently, the purpose of the restoration was predominately to undo the damage done by previous conservation efforts and to stabilize the piece for future display. In its current state, there are very few fragments of the flag's white sections remaining. Apparently, the dyes used for the blue and red sections had a protective effect on the fibers, whereas the natural, white fibers decayed at a much faster rate. The flag currently resides in a very dark room, where it rests on a ten degree incline, never to hang again.

Finally, I was too tired and dehydrated (there was not a working drinking fountain to be found in any part of the museum we visited), to go on, so we paused for a refreshment in the cafeteria before jumping on the Metro to meet Katie for dinner. I had selected Minh's, a Vietnamese restaurant, for our meal, based on the fact that it was convenient for Katie, who lives in Arlington, not far from the place, and on the strength of The Washingtonian, which has recommended it as one of the best restaurants in the city for years and years.Though Katie has walked past it every day for three years and never gone in, she was open to giving it a try.

Even though we had Asian food last night, I was beyond pleased with the meal we had at Minh's. In fact, I wish we had eaten there yesterday, and tried something else today so that I could erase the memory of the bland dinner we had at Mala Tang. We started the meal with a sampler platter of appetizers, the star of which were crispy fritters made of shredded sweet potato and prawns. Justin and Katie both had pho, and seemed content with their choice, and I went with their caramelized catfish served in a clay pot with rice, and it was incredible. The seasonings were strong but balanced, and the fish was tender, moist, and perfectly cooked. I'll be thinking about it for a long time. Plus, all three of us ate at Minh's for just over half of what we paid the night before. If I lived near Minh's, I'd eat there all the time; I hope Katie goes back.

We lingered over our meal for quite some time, enjoying Katie's company, before we had to tear ourselves away to head back to the hotel. It's always such a joy to be able to reconnect with old friends, even if in this case, I had just seen Katie three months ago. Much as I love my friends and the life I have built for myself in Chicago, I will always have a special place in my heart for my college pals, and it makes me happy that we are managing to stay in touch despite the distance that separates us.

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