Some years back, the Washington Post, in its never-ceasing effort to cobble together a semblance of community from the disparate neighborhoods that make up this hopelessly fractured metropolis, came up with a contest to identify the city’s signature dish. A winner was declared—the half-smoke—but the contest—which surely did little to raise the profile of that plump, grease-beaded street snack—mostly served to point up Washington’s absence of anything like a collective culinary memory. Really, now: If you have an honest-to-God local tradition, you don’t need to go conducting a search.
Problem is, the city is so chock-full of transients, all of them clinging to their own beloved local culinary traditions, that the collective consciousness doesn’t recognize the treasures that are right in front of its face.
Not long ago, I told a friend of mine—who had lived in the area more than 10 years—that a new restaurant had moved into the old Hogate’s space on the waterfront and was even bringing back the famous rum bun. She wrinkled her brow and said, “What’s a rum bun?”
As I described to her the old fish-house tradition of the meal being preceded by a big, fist-sized sweet roll, swirled with cinnamon and studded with raisins, the entire soft doughy confection topped by a sticky, gooey rum-flavored icing, she interrupted with two more questions: “What’s a fish house?” and “You ate dessert before the meal?”
Besides feeling as though I’d dated myself hopelessly, I began thinking about this almost-obsolete custom and was struck by how homespun and small-town it all sounded—not just the rum buns, which were usually the best, most memorable part of the meal, but the local tradition of the family-owned and -operated fish house (O’Donnell’s, Flagship, Bish Thompson’s, Hogate’s), the platters of broiled fish and seafood moored in shallow little pools of butter, the candy-coated chocolate mints for the taking at the hostess stand. Twenty-five, 30 years ago, this was considered good eating, not merely family eating.
To my friend, it was all terribly odd, essentially culinary kitsch. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the very oddity and kitschiness I found so interesting—a reminder that such an official, by-the-book city could lay claim to something so weird and wonderful and utterly déclassé.
Also, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted a rum bun.
True to memory, the resurrected rum bun was the single best, most memorable part of my otherwise unremarkable recent lunch at H2O, which also included aioli-topped oysters Rockefeller, a spinach-and-strawberry salad, and a well-made, if ordinary, crab cake. The roll, which arrived gratis, as it used to at the old Hogate’s, was still hot when it hit the table, a slightly tottering square of fresh-baked dough, cut from a sheet pan. Aromas of cinnamon, rum, and raisin wafted up. I made myself a promise to just pick at it, slowly, bite by soft, gooey bite, but that promise stood all of 10 seconds. I inhaled the thing.
This was not the über-buttery, caloric monster of Cinnabon, mind you, but something considerably more humble, closer to what you might make at home if you were trying your hand at a pull-apart sweet roll. Chef William Bednar’s recipe—the original recipe, he assures me later—is more involved than it looks. For one thing, not just the icing but the glaze and even the dough are infused with rum extract. For another, the dough is proofed for 24 hours in the fridge before baking. Bednar, who began teaching rum-bun-making at an adult-education program in Fairfax in the period between Hogate’s 2001 closing and H2O’s opening, says the cold changes the texture, making the buns lighter and more pliant.
Bednar, who was head chef for Hogate’s last seven years and assumed the same position for H2O when it opened in December, acknowledges that the rum buns “don’t technically fit” with his new menu concept—“contemporizing” the classic fish house with the likes of seafood skewers—but says he felt tugged by tradition.
“It was like, we couldn’t not have ’em. It didn’t feel right. The other thing was, here we were starting up—new restaurant, new name, new philosophy. We kept the name Hogate’s”—technically, the restaurant is H2O at Hogate’s—“because it’s such a landmark. Well, the rum buns are another link to the past.”
In fact, rum buns were a part of the early negotiations between chef and management. “I was like, ‘We are bringing the rum buns back, right?’ And they were, like, ‘Yeah, definitely.’” And servers at the new-old restaurant are instructed “to go through the history of the rum buns, so if anyone’s wondering why we’re serving dessert first, they’ll know.”
But that history doesn’t go far enough back to explain the origins of the tradition. I’ve heard various theories from culinary historians, none of them definitive: The tradition is rooted in the Pennsylvania Dutch notion of seven sweets and seven sours. Or it owes a debt to the Southern tradition of sweet breads (spoon bread, corn bread) as belonging to any definition of a proper meal. Or it comes from something else altogether. All anybody can say for sure is that rum buns appear to belong exclusively to the mid-Atlantic, extending as far south as Virginia—there are restaurants in Williamsburg that serve them—and as far north as New York. But it seems likely that, as the family fish house is pushed toward extinction by the profusion of such corporate seafood purveyors as McCormick & Schmick’s and the family-friendly chains, the rum bun will not survive this century.
Bill Edelblut is understandably concerned. Edelblut, 53, is the owner of O’Donnell’s, the legendary local fish house. The story of the restaurant his grandfather launched on E Street NW in 1922 is in some ways the story of the area itself, encompassing as it does the parallel narratives of white flight, the decline of the city and the general drift toward the suburbs, and the explosion of a dining environment that has resulted in a gradual movement away from family-owned businesses. Three years ago, Edelblut shut down the location in Bethesda where his mother moved the business after 45 years, no longer interested in competing with a fast-changing, ever more trendy restaurant culture.
Today O’Donnell’s resides in the exurbs, a dinosaur among the chains and big boxes in Gaithersburg. A framed copy of the downtown location’s menu from 1943—offering, among other treats, six kinds of rarebit, more than a dozen oyster preparations, and African lobster tail—hangs in the entranceway. The Norfolk Platters—shellfish and fish sauteed with butter and finished with a spritz or two of tarragon vinegar—remain unchanged, as do the signature rum buns, the smell of which drifts out from the on-site bakery, perfuming the air.
When I went to sample them recently, they arrived, as always, two to a basket, along with some corn muffins and yeast rolls. They were not hot, and they were not as intensely rummy as those at H2O, but they were good. And in an era of indifferent service, or, worse, of personally impersonal service, they struck me as a gesture of warmth and good will on the part of the restaurant. As I tucked into my crab gumbo (no mistreated okra, firm tomatoes, lumps of crab), Cajun soft-shell crab, and not-overrich Norfolk sampler, listening to Louis Armstrong and reveling in the attentions of a gracious, veteran waitress, I thought of the grand old New Orleans restaurants, Brennan’s and Galatoire’s, and how New Orleans folks might overlove their traditions—both of those restaurants are coasting—but we underlove ours.
Edelblut came by later and asked me how I liked the rum buns: Did they taste the way I remembered them?
He was proud of them. He was also well aware of the Hogate’s reputation. “We don’t serve ’em hot,” he said. “Never have. Now, you take that other rum bun out and let it cool a bit and see. I’ll put this right up against it.”
This isn’t a competition, I wanted to tell him. It’s a celebration, a testament to survival and the value of the old ways. I was less interested in choosing between rum buns than in cherishing them—the mere fact of their existence in a time of diminishing traditions. I like them. Even more, I like the idea of them. —Todd Kliman
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