Updated: Dec 13, 2018
My Dad texts me one Friday morning explaining how my life was just made- I asked why, and he said that I’m going to the Smithsonian Food History Gala that upcoming Thursday. His work friend, Allison, had two tickets to the hottest food event of the year, but could not go. She knew that I was extremely interested in food anthropology and she gave me the tickets because “the world is cruel and I want to live vicariously through your youthful enthusiasm,” she explained in an email to my dad.
Thursday morning, my mom, sister, and I packed our bags into the white Camaro that my mom rented because our minivan needed fixing. We headed to Washington, D.C. listening to Christmas music for most of the ride, because it was November 1st, after all. We arrived at our hotel and my mom and I started getting ready for the Gala. My sister would stay in the hotel room for the night. I put on my favorite dress that I wore for two previous events, a long black evening gown with beaded and embroidered flowers going down the back to the train. My mom wore a long black ruffled dress. We got into the uber and went to the Museum of American History, where the event was held.
We walk into the front door of the museum and walked into the cocktail hour space, in the front of the museum, next to the Food: Transforming the American Table exhibit. During cocktail hour, we enjoyed an exclusive look at the exhibit, including Julia Child’s kitchen, picture taking on the red carpet, and french inspired vegetarian and vegan horderves.
After cocktail hour, we are led upstairs into the main event space, in front of the Star Spangled Banner exhibit room. There are colorful and beautifully set tables all around the area and a stage in the front. We make our way to our table, Quinoa Fritters, one aspect of the cuisine of Julia Child award recipients, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, aka the Too Hot Tamales. My mom and I sit down and introduce ourselves to our tablemates, CJ and Ellen Simmons. They had just moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, but Ellen still works remotely for the Smithsonian. While we all chatted, waiters came around offering water, wine, and beer.
The first speaker of the night, Bobby Flay, came onstage and introduced himself as the Emcee. He told of his experience with both Feniger and Milliken and also Julia Child herself. He even laughed about the time that they competed against each other on the second season of Iron Chef, on the episode Flay vs. the Too Hot Tamales. Then a group of perfectly uniform waiters brought out the first course, a duo of salads from one of Feniger and Milliken’s restaurants, City Cafe. There was a delicious Thai Melon Salad and an appetizing Chinese Sausage Salad that you can eat as a wrap. I was thoroughly impressed with the Thai Melon Salad, as I usually cannot stand melons, but these were too good to eat. I did not eat the Chinese Sausage Salad because I am a vegetarian, but everyone seemed to enjoy it very much.
While I was eating my salad, CJ called over Bobby Flay himself and introduced him to me. I told Flay about how I am an aspiring pastry chef and how I am currently applying to culinary schools at the moment. He gave me some reassuring advice, “You’re at the right place, just throw yourself into the food world and everything will click and it will all work out.” After he spoke to me those words of wisdom and went on to his table, I was too starstruck to even finish my salad.
After Barbara Fairchild spoke about her time in food media and about Julia Child, the perfectly polished waiters came out again, this time with the main course. The Seared Cauliflower Steak and Chicken with Basmati Rice and Pickled Tomatoes was easily one of the best meals that I have ever eaten. While I did not eat the chicken or the fried chicken skin, everyone thought that it was amazing. The cauliflower steak and the vegetables were outstanding and the green sauce that was on the rice was phenomenal.
As I was finishing my plate, CJ called over another outstanding chef to our table. This time it was one of the award recipients, Susan Feniger. She was one of the kindest people that I have ever met. After giving her my spiel about being a young chef and going to culinary school, she told me, “I think you’ll love working in restaurants, you just have to start working, and if you love it, keep going, and if you don’t, find another path.” I found it comforting, and then I was starstruck once again, but at least I finished my food beforehand.
After Traci Des Jardins spoke about how the Tamales were like Julia Child, the third course came out. The dessert was the Border Grill’s Pastel Tres Leches with Passion Fruit and Prickly Pear. It was the most interesting dessert that I have ever tasted because of the soft cake, creaminess from the leche, and the tang of the passionfruit and the prickly pear. As we ate dessert and coffee, we were shown a video about the Julia Child Award and then Kasja Alger (Pronounced Sasha) gave a heartfelt and tear filled speech about her lifelong mentors, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. The Too Hot Tamales came to the stage and were presented their awards, then had speeches about their partnership, careers, and of course, Julia Child.
After the event was over, many guests left, while some went to the stage to congratulate the Tamales and chat with others. My mom and I made our way up to the stage and an important looking lady let me hold one of the very heavy awards. After posing for a picture, I made my way over to CJ, Ellen, and Mary Sue Milliken. They introduced me to Milliken and we spoke for a while about cooking. Before leaving, she told me to find her online and contact her if I ever need any help or advice. Starstruck for a third and final time, my mom and I made our way back to the hotel, went through our swag bags, and told everyone we knew about the amazing night that we had.