Chirping Away About a Cricket-Eating Contest Just Blocks from the White House

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC 06.05.2014

I had intended just to come, eat a few bugs, and blog about it. But then I saw the sign. “Next … Cricket Eating Competition 1:15 p.m.,” it said. “Your participation is a $20 donation to DC Central Kitchen. Win Prizes.”

It really didn’t take a lot of consideration. I had already downed a grasshopper burger and 2 big helpings of savory bugs, so I had no aversion to adding crickets to the list. I think DC Central Kitchen is one of the city’s best charities, so that was attractive. And while I would be a newbie to the world of competitive cricket eating, I did have some experience in related fields. As a young reporter doing a 1st-person story, I had been the July 4th South Jersey watermelon seed spitting champion back in the 1980s for all of 2 hours until my record was broken.  And, since retiring to DC, I had blogged about the 2012 July 4th Z-Burger battle bash.

As I finished the last bites of a grasshopper burger, I told my wife to sign me up.

I took my seat at the table with about 20 other competitors. On my right was a legislative aide from Capitol Hill. On my left was a young Environmental Protection Agency worker.  Both gave me some pause for concern. I mean who knows more about bugging than the government. And the EPA deals all the time with environmental pests. But I actually thought my toughest competition might come from the recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who said he loved to compete in eating contests.

The head judge, who came all the way from England (or at least had a British accent) gave the directions. They seemed simple enough. We would each be handed 3 small cups of dried crickets. The winner would be the person who downed all 3 cups the quickest. If any crickets spilled on the table, you would have to consume those, too. You would have to raise your hand and then open your mouth to prove that all the insects had been completely swallowed. You couldn’t drink anything while eating.

The judge asked if we were ready. We all nodded. “Alright begin,” he said.

I learned quite a bit about cricket consuming in the next 3 minutes. First, there are almost as many ways of eating crickets in a cricket-eating competition as there are crickets. There is the dainty, grab one-by-one style. There is the 2-handed, 2-cup plunge. There is the dump-the-whole-cup down-at-once and then try to swallow method.

Then there are the faces of the contestants. They are interesting to say the least. They are also distracting. In fact, I became more interested in watching the faces than I did in eating. Or at least that is what I told myself. Actually, I realized after my 1st cup of crickets that I wasn’t cut out for hard-core cricket chomping and chewing. I did manage to down a 2nd cup. But by that time, the winner had long finished and I was battling for a 2nd or 3rd place finish that I really didn’t have the stomach for.

But even though I emerged beaten, I was not downhearted for long. A few steps away was the perfect cure for taking the sting out of a lost bug battle – I grabbed another of Chef Scruggs’ really tasty grasshopper burgers. However not before having 2 glasses of water and a Coke. If nothing else, I now knew that cricket eating is the saltiest work this side of competitive salt-shaker downing.

Covid-19 Claims My Favorite Korean Deli

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

I said goodbye to Margaret Park today. Now I’m certain given the uncertain, unnerving conditions in the new nothing-normal of our COVID-19 world, we’ll all be saying goodbyes a lot in the months to come. And, as goodbyes go, this wasn’t tragic. But it still had a tinge of sadness about it.

Unless you live in Crystal City, the urban Virginia community just three Metro stops from the National Mall and Washington, D.C. where I live, you probably don’t know Margaret (which is her Americanized first name for she is Korean/American). In fact, even if you did live in this community of 22,000 people, where 60,000 more come work Mondays through Fridays, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t know the 67-year-old Margaret either.

But I knew Margaret. For 16 years, she operated the Deli Works, which was the first establishment you came to when you exited our apartment complex and entered the 12-block underground we have in Crystal City.

Actually, I still recall the first conversation Margaret and I had when we met nine years ago. I asked her what was good in her deli, which featured a sampling of Korean dishes. She asked: “You like spicy?”. I responded I did. “Good then, I’ll make you my special spicy chicken”.

And for the next nine years I ate Margaret’s special spicy dish – known in Korean as bul-dak – at least a couple of times a month. In fact, her chicken dish became a running joke between us.

I would pop in to the deli. And she would always ask what I wanted.

I might say, “Let me have the bulgogi bowl” or “I’ll take the bibimbap”.

Margaret’s response was always the same. She insisted that I eat her spicy chicken as she said it was better for me. And so I would once again eat Margaret’s spicy chicken, which definitely rated 5 out of 5 stars, especially when you considered its amazingly low cost given DC-area prices.

Another thing about Margaret was her luminous smile. Every time I would walk by her deli, if she saw me, her eyes would twinkle and she would smile and wave animatedly as if I were her favorite person in the world. Of course, she did that with everyone she knew. But even knowing that, it still seemed special and brightening at that moment.

Last Monday, I was walking past the deli and Margaret motioned me inside. Margaret often doesn’t always trust herself to convey what she wants to say in English. She held one finger up, signaling me to wait. She typed something into her cell phone in Korean and then pushed the translate-to-English button on the app. She held her phone so I could see her message. “I’m tired. On Friday,” it said.

At first, I was confused. “I’m tired. On Friday”?

And then it dawned on me. A couple of years ago, Margaret said she was getting ready to retire and close the deli. “You can’t do that,” I said at the time. “Where would I get my spicy chicken?”.

Now today, Margaret was telling me the time had come for me to answer that question. She was going to retire on Friday and close the deli. I promised her I would come by on that day and have one last supper – or in this case lunch – since she had taken to closing in the early afternoon.

So, on Friday March 27, at 11:30 a.m. I entered the Deli Works for a final time. Now we all know that in these uncharted pandemic times, things are different. And the scene inside the deli demonstrated just how different they really are. You couldn’t see Margaret’s smile since it was hidden behind the surgical-style mask she has been in for the past 2 weeks. Lucille, her co-cook who has been working at the deli for 14 years, was mopping an empty area where a giant display case had stood the day before. The only other person in the deli was another worker, who was unhooking the soda machine. But perhaps, most striking of all, the screen on the TV which had constantly displayed CNN when the deli was open, was now blank.

While Margaret let my chicken cook, I asked her a few questions. It’s what writers who were once former reporters do.

“What will you do now?,” I asked.

Pulling down her mask, Margaret replied she would stay home and rest.

“Did this shutdown for the virus effect your decision?” I inquired.

It was clear that Margaret didn’t understand the question. So I rephrased it, this time pointing to the empty walkways outside which as recently as month ago would have been teeming with workers and residents out for lunch.

“Yes. I planned to go later. But now, nobody comes in. So I’ll go now,” she said.

Of course, Margaret is not alone in being an economic victim of the necessary decision to socially isolate, and in some locations places shelter in place or even quarantine to try beat back this death-delivering COVID-19 menace.

One of the greatest advantages in living in an urban setting like we do is all the opportunities available there.

For example, take dining options. As a writer who loves to eat good food, I have done my research. There is (or was at of the beginning of March at least) the astounding number of 184 eateries within a mile walking distance of our apartment complex.

But on the day Margaret was closing, the number still open had been reduced to fewer than 40, with all of them offering take-out service only. And this reduction had come in only the first weeks of changes here in Crystal City.

The good news is that people are working from home and only venturing out for necessities such as food or visiting grocery and drug stores. But no one knows how long these emergency measures must be in place to be effective. Another month? Through the summer? The rest of 2020? Longer? And of course, the more time that passes until some semblance of daily normalcy can return here – or in any of the communities where you live – the more owners will be forced to make Margaret’s decision – do I stay or do I go.

As Margaret handed me my last order of her special spicy chicken, I had one final question. There were a few still-in-their bag items on the lone display shelf left and some drinks in the refrigerated case that had once been filled. “What happens to that stuff?” I asked.

“I’ll give it to the news stand man down there. You know him, right?” Margaret said, pointing in the direction of a small news/convenience store nearby in the underground.

“Did you say give?” I asked, wanting to make sure that I understood Margaret correctly.

“Yes, give. That’s easy,” she said. “I’m closing. He can use my stuff. In bad times, we must work together. We must help one another. We must share. It’s the right thing to do.”

And Margaret is absolutely correct.

We do need to work together, today more than ever. We do need to help one another, today more than ever. We do need to share, today more than ever. Sometimes, it takes bad times to remind us how we should act in better times.

Now if all the people leaders in the White House and the Congress here in DC and all the officials in all the other government buildings all over the globe can just internalize, come to truly understand, and then follow Margaret’s simple advice, we can beat this invisible virus now threatening all of us.

And then who knows? If we get through this by working together, and helping one another, and sharing maybe … just maybe … we could create a world that is just as good as the best of Margaret’s spicy chicken.

And trust me, as a well-cultivated food lover, that would be a mighty fine tasting world.

Will Great Flavored, Locally Favored Deli Be Able to Keep Its Doors Open

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

Since he first opened the New Yorker Deli here in Crystal City in 1979, Khalil Abdel Hay, or “Charlie” as everyone who knows him calls him, has experienced both hard-won upturns and abrupt downturns in his business. 

Today, as I write this, the deli is still open, offering breakfast, lunch, and the most tasty chicken shawarma sandwiches in the area. But the question of how much longer the New Yorker Deli, like many small businesses here and across the country, can remain open is very much in doubt.

The popular deli was designed to attract its customers from the thousands of workers who have been commuting here Monday through Friday for work since the late ‘70s. Like all  businessmen, Khalil and his brother, who both arrived in the United States from Palestine and jointly opened the eatery, struggled to build their small business. However, in less than 2 years, Khalil says they were serving about 300 customers daily, most of whom were regulars.

“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of competition. And we always treated our customers like family. I knew their favorites and could sometimes start their orders when I saw them walk through the door. I knew just how they wanted their coffee and would have it ready for them,” Khalil noted.

Eventually, his brother moved on. Khalil opened two other stores in Crystal City which he eventually abandoned. At the time, government was the main employer here. In the ‘90s, however, federal reductions and relocations prompted many of the offices  to close.  

It was again time to build a new dining base. The effort was successful. But then in 2001, terrorists who had commandeered 4 passenger jet planes as part of their 9/11 attack, flew one of them into the Pentagon, located less than 2 miles away.  The deadly attack forced the closing of several Crystal City firms and the temporary halt of all operations at Reagan National Airport, whose frequent flyers, traveling business men and women, and pilots and airline attendants based in Crystal City also frequented the deli.

Khalil and his family once again struggled to regain customers. However, by 2019, the deli was back serving about 200 people during its 6 hours of operation.

But in March of 2020, the most far-reaching disaster yet struck. Like communities over much of  America, Crystal City underwent a virtual lockdown to try to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

The Virginia government decided that the New York Deli, like all other restaurants in the state,  could remain open if it chose to do so, but could only serve take-out orders. 

Of course, the majority of the customers here had enjoyed takeout prior to the pandemic. But because of a state mandate to have workers work from home, the commuting workforce in Crystal City immediately plunged from 60,000 to fewer than 1,000, most of whom were employed in pharmacies, grocery stores, and local eateries which were deemed essential services.

 “It was very bad,” Kahlil says. “We went from 200 customers a day to fewer than 10. We aren’t even making enough to pay the rent. I never thought business could be this bad”.

However, even though he realizes the “scary time” is far from over, Kahlil maintains he isn’t ready yet to close the store and retire. But he also knows decisions like those will be dictated by conditions outside his control. 

“We have to wait and see,” Kahlil says. “We again have to be patient. We have to see what happens next. At some point, however, we have to start making money again”.

Currently, Virginia is in Phase 3 of its long range plan to slowly reopen, which means restaurants  can finally serve patrons on-site outside and inside with guidelines specifying maintaining social distancing, having at least 6 feet between tables, drastically reducing counter service, and instituting new sanitizing and cleaning rules.

The loosening of restrictions has benefitted many of the area’s eateries, as local residents  tentatively leave their apartments and homes to dine out again. But the New York Deli isn’t designed for such benefits. Most residents are dining out for dinner, which isn’t offered at the New Yorker Deli. And, since it is located inside the Shops at the Century BuildingKhalil and his 32-year-old son Ahmad, who assists his father daily, can’t offer any outside dining options. And, even if they could, the biggest problem remains a lack of customers. 

There is a strong possibility that customer shortage may become permanent here, experts contend. Or at least permanent until Amazon phases in the majority of its expected 35,000 high-end office workers here to staff its new east coast headquarters. During the ongoing pandemic, many firms have learned much business can be conducted without having large groups of workers in one place. Several major American firms have already announced that the bulk of their workers can continue working from home. Plus, Zoom and other such websites may have made the business trip obsolete, meaning there may never again be as many opportunities to attract customers to the deli. And there is no telling when regular flights to and from National Regan Airport will again become the reality.

“Again, we just don’t know,” Kahlil says, repeating the only answer that appears to be available right now for all the questions about Covid-19 and its long-term effects. “We would like to keep open, but we will just have to wait and see”.

Charley with his son, Ahmad.

What Happens to an Acclaimed Sports Pub in a Pandemic? Hint – It’s Not Great

This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic

Bill Bayne remembers the exact moment when he realized the business he and his 3 partners operate here in Crystal City – the acclaimed Crystal City Sports Pub – could be in serious trouble from a virus that was then ravaging a city in China 7,545 miles away.

“I was at the last game the Wizards (Washington’s pro basketball team) got to play before the season was suspended. I was talking to this guy next to me who worked for the government. I remember saying ‘this stuff is getting bad’. I could see the storm coming. But he didn’t have a clue how ugly this thing (the virus) was going to be,” Bayne said. “Actually, I got pissed off and walked away”.

Today, two months later, Bayne admits that though he saw the impending danger, he still underestimated the drastic impacts from the COVID-19 virus. “I never in a million years dreamed the government would shut us down,” he said. “The financial impact is unbelievable”.

The sports pub, like many eating establishments across America, is now only allowed to offer food for takeout. So how does that drastic reduction translate into the money flow of the operation which Bayne co-runs with his other partners James Madden, Art Daugherty, and John Finley?

“ We estimate that we will lose $170,000 to $200,000 in April alone,” Bayne said, his tone matter-of-fact, but solemn.

When it was fully operational as recently as Super Bowl Sunday, the sports pub, which opened in 1994, was one of the places to be in the DC area to watch any sporting event, especially the most significant ones. The pub, located on Arlington’s restaurant row on 23rd Street, consists of three stories with bars and tables on each floor. It long has been heralded for having 100 TVs available for viewing, but Bayne explained this is no longer true. A giant screen that takes up one wall on the third floor replaced 16 of those sets. “So we only have 85 now,” he added.

The pub, which has a legal capacity of 350 patrons at one time, was always packed with Redskins, Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and fans of other professional DC teams whenever there was a local game televised. On Sundays, you can watch every NFL game being played. In addition, the pub serves as the unofficial home base for the fans of 19 colleges ranging from nearby Maryland University to Oregon State on the west coast. There are pool tables and video games. Sports memorabilia line all the walls and bathrooms of the establishment.

The pub sponsors various leagues, including one for softball and one for kickball. Throughout the year, it hosts almost-always-sold-out bus trips to professional sporting events. It’s not only a DC-area institution, but has been recognized by nationwide sports networks and magazines like ESPN and Sports Illustrated as one of the best sports bars in America.

But none of this was noticeable on this particular Tuesday afternoon in late April. Inside the pub there were only Billy, another of the partners, two managers shuttling back and forth from the street front widow of the pub’s patio to the kitchen with takeout orders, and a small kitchen staff to prepare the meals. There were no current sports on the TVs because there are no sports now being played anywhere in the country.

Prior to the pandemic-prompted shutdown, the pub employed a staff of 75, with about 40 of them having worked there for more than 3 years. Now they are all, except for the skeleton crew, collecting unemployment. The co-owner said the operation did apply for and receive PPP money (Paycheck Protection Program) a special federal allocation to help keep small businesses operating during these horridly troubling times, which are proving to be as devastating as the Great Depression of the previous century. “I think President Trump and the Feds did a great job with the PPP,” Bayne said. “I want to especially commend the president and then both (political) sides for passing the bill”.

Bayne said that while a major concern is the economic stability of his staff, which he compared to a large family, he is also worried about the “collateral” harm the closings are having on the Crystal City community in particular and the country as a whole. “This is unreal, the damage that has been done,” he pointed out. “People are cooped up with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There’s anxiety. There’s stress. You can’t stop the locomotive of the country from running. You’ve got to figure out a way to keep it open and safe”.  

“I get it, I really do get it,” Bayne explained . “We have parents. We have grandparents. I’m 56. I’m overweight and diabetic so I’m in that danger zone. But I can’t live my life being scared of living. As a businessman, I don’t wake up every day to fail; I live to succeed. It’s the toughest call there is. But we have to at some point open up the country”.

Bayne said that while “we still could lose our business” he’s confident that won’t happen. His confidence, however, doesn’t extend to all the other eateries in the Crystal City area. “When they let people come in, we will get people back in here. We will do business. We have a model that works and we will be able to adjust that model. Will we make the money we did before –  no way?  But that’s not going to happen for everybody here. We have about 100 eateries in Crystal City. My best guess is that 40 percent won’t be able to survive and that means only about 60 percent of us will,” Bayne said.

“This will change the world of bars and dining. Look, at the end of the day, I hope everybody’s healthy. But I also hope for this country that the reaction (to the pandemic) doesn’t put a knife in that will hurt us for generations to come,” he added.