Good to the last smoky detail

BensChiliBowl_01There are cities and regions in these here United States that, when you mention the name, certain foods instantly zoom into your mind.

The Southern Highlands: Pulled-pork barbecue (get ready for intense theological debates about the sauce).

Baltimore: Crab cakes.

Kansas City: Steaks, of course, or beef brisket.

Boston: Clam chowder (New England, of course).

Cincinnati: Spaghetti covered with cheese and chili (containing a hint of cinnamon).

You get the idea.

Anyway, I’m not sure that Washington, D.C., has a signature food — in large part because of its astonishing array of restaurants specializing in ethnic and regional foods from coast to coast and around the world. It’s a crossroads city. Come to think of it, what’s the unique signature food of New York City? How about Los Angeles (not counting the In-N-Out faith)?

Now, people who live here know that there is a big difference between “Washington,” the power city, and “DC,” which is a city of rich and poor, while its culture lives in neighborhoods and rides the buses.

I don’t think there is an official food of “Washington,” unless it’s grilled crow with a side of bitter herbs. But what about “DC”? Yes, the District has an official food and it is called the “half-smoke.” If you don’t know what that is, then you haven’t been to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Get with the program, people.

The half-smoke is a sausage and if it’s good enough for President Barack Obama, as well as an army of media and sports celebrities, it’s good enough for you. As a veteran of this fabulous joint (this is not where you want to be during Great Lent or any other fasting season), let me assure you that the “half-smoke” is worthy of the hype.

Anyway, the “Ben” who owns this establishment died the other day and the Washington Post and other local newsrooms rolled out nice packages on Ben Ali, 82, and the remarkable story of the Trinidadian immigrant who wanted to be a dentist. However, he ended up running a restaurant in which working-class folks sit next to senators and listen to the same world-class juke book while chowing down on chili, hot dogs, sausages, cheese fries and, well, more chili.

So why am I bringing this up at GetReligion?

If you read all the way to end of the long A1 feature on Ali’s life, you will hit a remarkable detail linked to his life and the practice of his faith. It’s a stunner:

When Mr. Ali and Virginia Rollins were married October 10, 1958, she converted to his Muslim faith. Although Mr. Ali was reluctant to admit it in public, he firmly obeyed the Islamic prohibition on pork. Throughout his life, he never tasted the hot dogs and half-smokes that made his restaurant famous.

Now here is my question: Should this detail have come higher up in the report? I mean, I understand the impact provided by putting it at the very end. But I can also understand the temptation to put it earlier, perhaps even in a symbolic-detail lede.

Reporters and editors, what think ye? It’s not a matter or right or wrong. I’m just curious. Wherever you play it, this is an amazing detail from an amazing life.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • mattk

    San Francisco: Sourdough bread

  • Mollie


    There’s actually a discussion of this tidbit in the Post Mortem blog. Fascinating reading. And even some more religion details, to boot. Who knew that Ben Ali was “100% East Indian”?

  • Mollie

    Here’s an interesting part from the above link:

    Ben Ali’s sons had been interviewed, famous people had weighed in and ordinary diners had talked about Ben’s food and ambiance. But, as I discovered, Ben Ali himself had given an in-depth interview only one time in his life — in February of this year to a paper in India. When Obama had visited Ben’s Chili Bowl in January, journalists in India noticed that Ali’s sons looked Indian and looked into the family’s story.

    Mahaboob Ben Ali was born in Trinidad but described himself in the story as “100 percent East Indian.” His grandparents had been born in northern India, and Ben Ali was an educated and well-traveled man of the world who had visited India many times.

    I have spent more than a few 3 AMs at Ben’s and this news is positively shocking to me! I just thought Ben’s was a black institution through and through!

  • Jesi

    Er. Kansas City is barbecue. I mean, we have good steak. We have great steak. But our barbecue is even better, more iconic, and most definitely the best in the nation. Kansas City: barbecue, jazz, and pro-sports teams that make us weep.

  • tmatt


    I didn’t want to start a war over what is and what isn’t BBQ, but you’ll notice the reference to beef brisket. I had that as the reference, but asked a few people what they associated with KC and every one of them said — steaks.

    So I put both.

  • FrGregACCA

    Regarding the quote: Okay, so what sort of Islam did Mr. Ali practice? My understanding is/was that at least certain Muslims feel themselves obliged not only to not eat pork, but also to refrain from handling it.

  • Pingback: Ben Ali, 1927 — 2009 « NotionsCapital

  • Bern

    Rest his soul . . . and bless his widow, 50 years his wife!

  • Stephanie

    I am deeply saddened to note that tmatt’s shoddy editing allowed In-And-Out to make it into the piece. Clearly he has no idea of the beauty, the transcendence, of the faith if he cannot even correctly identify it. All true believers know that the chain is called In-n-Out or, if you *must* In ‘n’ Out. :)

  • tmatt

    It seems to be In-N-Out in AP.