The Red Hen(s)
June 29, 2018
Mike Friedman, the owner of The Red Hen, a really wonderful neighborhood restaurant in Washington, dropped by yesterday morning. He told me about telephone calls he has received from around the country and the number of death threats presumably from Trump supporters incensed about the denial of service to the White House press secretary at a restaurant with the same name in another place.
My favorite story about a restaurant’s refusal to serve a customer was one Jean Louis Palladin told me in the early ‘90s.
Palladin, in case the name is unfamiliar to you, was Washington’s first truly great chef. Incongruously located in the unfashionable basement of the Watergate Hotel, his restaurant was internationally important. Jean Louis contributed greatly to our development as a food culture, but that’s another story.
Shortly after it opened in 1979, Jean Louis at the Watergate was reviewed by Robert Shoffner, the Washingtonian Magazine’s critic who savaged it. The review was really remarkable. Jean Louis himself said, “Never in France have I read a review such as that. He didn’t merely write about what he ate, he attacked me. He attacked my taste and my talent. If I were to believe him, I would go out there (into the Potomac River across the road) and disappear.”
Although Jean Louis moved to Washington when he was a Michelin two-star chef, the youngest person ever to have been awarded two stars – although he was a man of great self-confidence, he told me twelve years later that he was so hurt by the review that, “Every morning when I woke up my first thought was about what I could do to him, how I would hurt him the way he hurt me.” He got a chance only a few years later and only after Shoffner had written a second negative review.
Shoffner came to the restaurant one night for dinner. When Jean Louis, in the kitchen, was told that Shoffner had arrived, he walked out into the dining room and told Shoffner he would not cook for him.
Shoffner told him that the law required Jean Louis to cook; his was a public accommodation and could not refuse a customer. When Jean Louis did just that, Shoffner called the police.
Jean Louis told me, “They came – there were two. One of them was ree-ally beeg and they were both wearing their pee-stoles and their talkie-walkies were loud.” Shoffner made his complaint to the police officers who after they conferred with each other, told Jean Louis that the law required him to serve Shoffner.
Jean Louis retreated to his kitchen. He told his staff to prepare a dinner but to send none of the restaurant’s cooking. Instead they found a tin of fois gras a salesman had left months before. They served oysters on the half-shell with lemon, no sauces. They sliced prosciutto and bread and they served butter and cheeses. For dessert they sent whole fruits.
The following day, I was told, Shoffner filed a complaint at the D.C. Office of Human Rights but I don’t know what happened to it. I do know that Shoffner’s enmity persisted because I was a witness to it more than ten years later.
I have read a lot this week about a restaurant’s refusal to serve. I am an intensely political person and have been all my life. Indeed my political career began in 1948 when at the age of ten I walked door-to-door in a working class neighborhood not far from my grandparents’ home in Baltimore to oppose the Ober Law that imposed a loyalty oath on public employees in Maryland.
I stayed political for many years working in many political jobs. In the late 1960s I worked for a United State Senator, Joseph Tydings, a Democrat from Maryland. Because my responsibilities included his press relations, I got around a lot in the Senate.
One day I was in the press gallery to pitch a story on a criminal justice bill of which Tydings was the floor leader. Sen. Everett Dirkson, the Senate’s Republican leader, was giving a little press conference while Sen. William Proxmire, was waiting to make a statement. I watched Senator Proxmire, not the most light-hearted of men, subtly make faces that might distract Dirkson. When he finished saying what he had to say, Dirksen rushed toward Proxmire in the pretense of an attack, both of them laughing.
Cokie Roberts has pointed out that politicians of that era, including her father, could be rivals but they couldn’t be enemies because they shared something that shaped their lives and feelings and politics, World War II. Their feelings about having been part of something truly momentous, a common experience in which they were allies, was reinforced in an earlier Washington where politicians didn’t retreat on Thursdays to homes in their districts, but lived here with their families where their wives socialized and their children shared schools.
As Dirksen said, I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.
That, as we all know, has changed. It’s hard to imagine such comity. When I was political we were competitive and committed but we were not angry. But now politics has left me and I am left only with those values that were always important to me.
This is a time of anger. This week I have been wondering how I would respond if the President’s press secretary decides to come here to the bakery. Would I in this uncivil time be uncivil?
What happened last weekend started as a dignified and private protest of a small business owner against a President, a presidency, and a politics she can’t bear. I have not heard that Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the restaurant that declined to serve Sarah Sanders, was uncivil. It was not she who told the world about her stand. Why did Ms. Sanders use her great power to bring danger to a little restaurant in a small town in Virginia – not to mention the one here in Washington – and the one in Maine – and all those with the same or a similar name?
It was not the owner the Red Hen who invited the President of the United States to attack a little small-town restaurant. (Have we become insensitive to the absurdity of these Tweets, the unseemly President of the United States commenting on the condition of an awning outside a little restaurant in a little town?)
I wonder what is now going to happen and I wonder what is right. The harassing of Secretary Nielsen in a Mexican restaurant. The discussion about whether all Trumpers should be harassed wherever they go.
How may we who own food businesses in Washington, any of which might attract Sarah Saunders or Senator McConnell or Stephen Miller, express disagreement without incivility or should we worry about incivility at all? I have read the argument of those who say that Trump enablers do not deserve civility.
I would be surprised if we in the heart of a residential neighborhood of Washington populated not by transient politicians but by people who live their lives here, ever see a Trump supporter. But if one of those who work for the administration – or others to whom graciousness and honesty are foreign ideas did come here, I think I would compromise. I don’t want either simply “to go high when they go low,” as Michelle Obama advocated, or, as Maxine Waters recommends, to harass people who are destroying our polity.
I think I would like to say simply to a Trumper, “’I want you know that I am furious about what you are doing to this country. What may I get you?”