This spring feels like no other. As we shake off the winter blues, we are also emerging from a year that kept many of us at home, distanced from others with whom we usually spend time — family, friends, but also the many familiar faces we see at neighborhood coffee shops, local restaurants, or the nearest corner store. The places where we get our food, it turns out, are also places where we gather, cross paths, seek support and stay connected.
This is the idea underlying a yearlong project of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum that is documenting Asian Pacific American food and foodways in the District and surrounding areas. The project broadens the scope of the museum’s collection by preserving artifacts and stories that have not previously been recorded. It builds on research about local food and foodways that is featured in the museum’s current exhibition, Food for the People, and asks local residents for help identifying food businesses that anchor our communities.
Do you have a favorite Asian Pacific American takeout, restaurant, corner store or supermarket? If you are a member of the APA community, do you have a food memory to share, or a place to recommend? Some are well-known, others less so; some occupy busy intersections, others are tucked away on residential streets; most serve a diverse clientele, while some also act as gathering places for specific cultural groups. The distribution of these businesses across the region reflects a rich history of (im)migration from many parts of Asia and America, as well as the variable availability of food offerings and access across our different neighborhoods. The stories of the shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and their customers create a valuable portrait of the ways Asian American foods and businesses have enriched our communities.
The stories collected to date are wide-ranging and diverse. Richard Nguyen’s Nam Viet is one of the last remaining Vietnamese restaurants in what used to be known as “Little Saigon” in Clarendon, VA. Nguyen proudly serves the traditional Vietnamese Pho or noodle soups first prepared by his parents for the restaurant, but he has also introduced new dishes and put a new spin on traditional dishes in response to a changing neighborhood. What has not changed is the family tradition of support to the community, including outreach to veterans and first responders.
In Washington, D.C.’s Ward 6, many residents rely on Seven River Mart when they have a last-minute need for milk, a craving for a snack, or a small fix-it project that requires supplies. Owner Samuel Ko is responsive to his customers’ needs, adjusting his inventory according to requests he has received. He is also known for sponsoring local schools and youth baseball leagues, which he sees as contributing to the sense of community and camaraderie he feels among his neighbors.
In Wheaton, Md., Janet Yu’s popular Hollywood East Café is a gathering spot for the Chinese American diaspora, many of whom seek out the specialties she cooks from her parents’ native Toisan in Guandong province. The weekend dimsum service, with its dumplings and tea, draws multiple generations to the table. The Café has pivoted to takeout during the pandemic, enabling the community to continue to enjoy the dishes from home.
Asian Pacific American food businesses are a mainstay of our neighborhoods and communities. Help us document the many ways they sustain and support us. To share your favorite restaurant, takeout or store, please email ACMCollections@si.edu with the name, location and a brief comment. We will select some to include as part of this project.