Archives for category: history

If you lived in the Washington, D.C. area on June 29, 2012, you remember exactly where you were when the derecho steamrolled through.

We’d never heard of the meteorological term until afterward. The National Weather Service had warned of severe thunderstorms, and I stood in the doorway mesmerized by the trees swaying and the rain pounding the patio with a fearsome backdrop of lightning. Then I heard a loud crack, and jumped back into the house. It was a transformer blowing, and so we joined 4 million people who lost power for days.

One good thing came out of that storm. A fledgling craft brewery in Alexandria, Port City Brewing Company, lost power and thought its full tank of beer would go bad. Instead, the beer simply fermented at a higher temperature. Thus was born the Derecho Common beer. The brewery smartly marketed the beer as “the storm’s gift,” and just this weekend released the third annual Derecho beer.

CRR's Growler

CRR’s Growler

For you beer aficionados and home brewers (JJJ take note), here’s how Port City describes it: “Deep golden in color, and has toasty, biscuit malt flavors. It is medium bodies with an assertive hop profile. It is dry hopped with Amarillo hops, which give it a spicy, citrusy hop kick on the finish.” Alcohol 4.8 percent.

It took us some time to find our way to Port City, which turns out to be practically in our back yard in Alexandria. Sam got CRR a growler of Port City brew for Christmas, and we’ve been back several times since.

Take the tour: for $10, you can schedule a tour of the backlot of the brewery and get five tickets for 6-ounce pours of their microbrews. My current favorite: Tartan ale, a hearty beer that falls between the lighter IPAs and the stouts. CRR recently came away with a growler filled with Colossal Two, a smoked imperial stout. “Hints of bacon”, for real!

Port City’s fame is growing — Chef Geoff of the eponymous restaurant chain just commissioned a beer named Northwest — so go soon before the line is out the door.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


As we begin the 90-90 season in Washington (90 degrees, 90 percent humidity), it’s an appropriate time to introduce a refreshing drink from the Middle East.

When I visited Sam in UAE, we toured an ancient neighborhood of Dubai. After several hours we were hot and sweaty and parched. He suggested a local drink, mint lemonade, as a sure pick-me-up. I wasn’t so sure, but readily agreed. Getting out of the sun was my priority.

We sat silently in the late afternoon shade while the waitress slowly made her rounds and eventually produced our drinks. The mint lemonades in tall icy-cold glasses were curiously green. Herbaceously green.

Mint Lemonade

Mint Lemonade

I took a sip. Mmm. It was so refreshing. The mint, the lemon, the ice all combined to create a drink that washed away the heat. After a few sips, we were alive again, talking, enthusiastic about our evening plans.

Since we have an abundance of mint (ie, the worst winter in half a century didn’t make a dent in it), I decided to figure out why this drink was so restorative.

A quick Google search brought these qualities to the fore:

Mint: astringent, antiseptic, antibacterial, antimicrobial, decongestant, expectorant, antiviral.

Lemon: antibacterial, antiviral, immune-boosting, digestive aid, liver cleanser.

I decided to give a home version of mint lemonade a try. I chose a warm Sunday when Chris and Jeff were visiting, after a walking tour of the super-cool Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.

A purist would make the lemonade from scratch. I took a shortcut and bought a no-bad-stuff lemonade, Newman’s Own Virgin Lemonade, which is made of filtered water, organic sugar and lemon juice/pulp. I harvested a bunch of mint, plucked the leaves and chucked the rest. Here’s the basic recipe:

Mint Lemonade

Pack a blender container with a handful or two of mint leaves. Add enough lemonade to cover. Whirl for a minute or two until the mint is pulverized. (This is no muddled julep!). Spoon a teaspoon or two of the mint pulp into the bottom of a tall glass, add ice, fill with lemonade. Top with a twist of lemon. Serve with a straw, which you use to stir and sip.

Ratio is the tricky part. CRR likes less mint puree; I like more. It’s a personal thing. You’ll have to find your bliss.

The four of us sat on the patio, slowly sipped and felt the antibodies (see above) take effect. Jeffrey declared himself relaxed. You had to be there to believe it.

If you troll Mideast foodie websites, some make the lemonade from scratch, others add a teaspoon of orange blossom water (which has a heavenly smell) or perhaps top it off with sparkling soda. Others whirl it into a frozen drink, and the racy ones suggest a splash of rum or vodka.

After experimenting for several weeks, I think I’ll freeze some mint puree in ice cube trays. Then I’ll plop a mint cube into a glass of lemonade at the end of the languid summer nights to come. And dream of Arabian nights.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


When my eldest son was a baby, I would often tuck him into a stroller and walk through the quietude of Arlington National Cemetery. Last weekend, when Will was home for CRR’s significant birthday, we walked it again. It is a wondrous place – acres of rolling hills with ancient trees standing vigil over 300,000 graves of those who fought for their country.

The first were buried exactly 150 years ago, in May 1864, in the throes of the Civil War. In bitter revenge for Robert E. Lee’s decision to lead the Confederate army, the Union seized his Arlington estate for unpaid taxes. The mansion, atop a hill that overlooks the capital across the Potomac River, would never again be home to the Lee family. Instead, its lush grounds became the final resting place for Union dead.

No one was angrier at Lee than Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the Union Army quartermaster and a fellow West Pointer who had once served under Lee. It was Meigs who ordered the Lee property to become a cemetery, and it was Meigs who directed the first gravesites to border Mrs. Lee’s gardens. Meigs built the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to house the remains of 2,111 unknown soldiers – Confederate and Union — from the Battle of Bull Run. And after the war Meigs chose his own gravesite, a stone’s throw from the Lee mansion.

Nearby is Abner Doubleday, a Union general who did or didn’t invent baseball, depending on which account you believe.

Marshall's grave (photo credit: Will Raasch)

Marshall’s grave (photo credit: Will Raasch)

Closer to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there is a section heavy with World War II luminaries. Gen. George Marshall, who steered the military through the war and then developed the European rehabilitation plan that carried his name. Behind Marshall lies Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, chief of staff to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. A few sites over: Gen. Matthew Ridgway, commander of the airborne paratrooper assaults that helped win the war.

And on and on. A walk through Arlington is to relive America’s hard-fought history, one soldier at a time. On Monday, the cemetery will be filled with tourists and VIPs and family members to commemorate their courage and sacrifice. On Tuesday, it will once again fall mostly silent.

As we walked toward the exit, we passed seven soldiers at attention, a respectful distance from a family burying a loved one. A few minutes later, we heard the 21-gun salute, a last tribute.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

A guest column from CRR on his big birthday:

WASHINGTON – In the spring of 1965, when I was turning 11 years old, Jack Weinberg, a free-speech-movement activist and graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, told a reporter that young people should not trust anyone over 30.

I’m turning 30 times two tomorrow, smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boomer generation. How ironic that seminal line of the Boomer/60’s generation looks from this vantage point.

Had Weinberg uttered those lines today, it would fire up what we now call a viral event, going global with the Speed of Tweet. Something new to argue about. The generational experts would come out swinging, Xers vs. Boomers, Millenials proclaiming their independence from it all. Partisans would look for a quip or attack line to win the moment. The phrase would be hash-tagged into infinity, hashed over into exhaustion on the cable talk shows.

 The line would be no wiser today than it was in 1965. The generation that came of age scarred by Vietnam, embroiled in the Civil Rights movement, catered to and obsessed upon in the culture like no other, is easing into retirement leaving the country deep in debt, and with a political trust deficit just as deep.

It’s not all the Boomers’ fault, but a lot of it has happened since we turned 30. And as if to remind Boomers of the often petty natures of our disagreements, Tom Brokaw re-introduced us to the Greatest Generation.

Now, in their twilight, these old soldiers come to the World War II Memorial here, wielding canes instead of guns this time, offering a more quiet contemplation of their own sacrifice and the trust they had to put in one another to get the job done.

Never trust anyone over 30? In 1965, that would have included the millions of men and women who helped defeat the Nazis in Europe and the imperial Japanese in Asia. Even if he didn’t really mean it, as Weinberg has been reported to have said since, it became a touchstone line of the ’60s generation growing old. How arrogant that seems these nearly five decades later.

So what is there to learn? That nothing is static, that no challenge is truly new, that any proclamation on its face, however popular or pithy, is best judged over time. We learn that conflict and friction is part of the human experience, and that wisdom is not a generational birthright. The Boomers turned 30, saw writ large our own character and judgment flaws in the presidents of our generation – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – reveled in the Me Decade and the tech boom that empowers the individual. But, despite the Beatles’ plea, came together only in the most horrific moments, like 9/11. Turns out we didn’t trust each other.

That same spring of 1965, the Who’s Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics to “My Generation,” on his 20th birthday. His line, “hope I die before I get old” became a musical catch phrase of my generation. He’ll be 69 on Monday.

Sandy Johnson will be back next week. She is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


I’d been watching for weeks, stalking DeBaggio online. Finally the words I sought were flashing across the nursery’s website: “Basil, tomatoes, peppers now available.” CRR and I were both running Saturday morning errands and I texted him: Time to drive out to Chantilly.

Our friend Anne swore by DeBaggio’s for these garden necessities. She said the nursery wouldn’t put anything out for sale until the overnight temperatures would let them survive and thrive. Indeed the website says, “I can guarantee the quality of our plants because we grow them ourselves.” So weeks earlier we had decided on a road trip for this year’s tender veggies and drove 33 miles out to Chantilly.

DeBaggio’s Herb Garden and Nursery dates to 1975. It was once surrounded by Virginia countryside but exurban growth has encroached to within a block of the nursery. The founder, Thomas DeBaggio, wrote several well-regarded books about gardening – and later, stricken with Alzheimer’s, he wrote about the disease and advocated for research on Oprah and NPR. His family carried on after he died a few years ago.

We browsed the stock, astonished at the variety. 23 kinds of oregano – after tasting several leaves, I settled on Greek Mountain, which the DeBaggio catalog said would “make the tongue tingle.” 27 types of basil – I picked up Napoletano, Genoa Green and a pistou miniature. The catalog said the Genoa Green “is the only variety we use for pesto.” OK then!

DeBaggio’s had 16 varietals of rosemary, an herb described as “shrouded in ancient legends and the smoke from modern barbeque grills.” By chance, I had read an article in the Washington Post last week about the severe winter kill-off of rosemary plants in our region. I lost two. So I chose Hill Hardy rosemary, which DeBaggio’s said was winter hardy below zero. That should defy the winter gods. The catalog had three essays dedicated to rosemary, one on “hardiness of rosemary and growing outdoors,” “growing rosemary in containers,” and “ranking rosemary varieties for use.”



It was a pleasure to shop for herbs at a nursery that obviously cares deeply about its products and relates to gardeners as professional-to-professional, even for us amateurs.

Next week: our tomato selections.

P.S. Since we were so deep into the Virginia suburbs, we drove the extra 10 miles to Arno’s pastry stand at Gilberts Corner for a treat. CRR chose a cream-filled éclair and I picked a tart lemon meringue tart.  As I wrote earlier, delicieux!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I still have a sense of wonder about the city where I have lived almost my entire adulthood. So much to do and see, from sports and culture to nature. In this case: First Friday Dupont, where once a month a handful of Washington art galleries throw open their doors for a public party.

Think of it as a pub crawl with art.

Thanks to a tip from my friend Chris, the art enthusiast, we walked from gallery to gallery, savoring a bit of wine, a cracker with cheese and some amazing art.

First a word about Chris. We have known Chris and Jeff forever (and I’ll leave it at that), and it’s always great when you discover a new side to an old friend. Quite simply, Chris opened my eyes to art. If you go to an art gallery or a museum or even a garden with Chris, she helps you understand the symbolism, the history, the back story. She is a docent at the National Gallery of Art and she helps you find things in paintings or sketches or sculpture that the casual observer (me) would never see.

Our first stop Friday night was a gallery showing the works of their friend Eleanor Kotlarik Wang


a flyem Eleanor

Using paper, wood and canvas, Eleanor layers silkscreened images with paint and then applies sanding and scratches. The result, as her website says, is “Organic forms (that) appear to float … They are airy, free and unattached to any sense of space or time.” The colors were amazing, ranging from royal blues and purples to yellows and oranges and deep red touched by gold. It was a thrill to hear Eleanor talk about her art as we strolled from frame to frame.

At another gallery, tucked away in a historic carriage house, we were wowed by the work of a Bulgarian artist, Kiril Jeliazkov. Huge paintings in vibrant colors depicted Brazilian dancers, a street scene at the Eiffel Tower, a café in Paris, and taxis crowding dusky New York street. His public art has been exhibited around the world, including a PGA golf tournament in Palm Beach.

At the end of the night, we made a pact to spend more First Fridays at Dupont Circle, then drifted toward home thinking about art. 

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

The legend goes like this: After God finished molding Man from earth, he took the remaining material, shaped it into a date palm, and placed it in the Garden of Eden. Dates are mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur’an.

There were dates everywhere in Abu Dhabi. The Arabian native fruit is an ancient sign of hospitality.

Dates were essential to the survival of Arab tribes. The fruit was an essential part of their diet; they consumed several pounds of dates a day, washed down with camel milk. And the date palm tree was used for everything from fabric to lumber.

There are more than 100 varieties of dates, mostly grown in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. I saw a dizzying array of them at an Arab version of a farmer’s market on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. You could get everything at this market: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, fish. There was an entire row of date vendors. At one shop, I asked the vendor to make up a sampler of every variety he sold. They were different colors, and some were drier than others — but honestly, to me, one pretty much tasted like another. I assume a native palate would be able to discern the differences.

Date Market

Date Market

We also saw a date palm orchard at the oasis of Al Ain.  Our guide told us the Emiratis take great pride in serving dates harvested from their own plot of land.

Dates are a heart-healthy food, low in cholesterol and rich in potassium and iron. The average date has about 25 calories.

That is, until you turn them into an incredible appetizer, Devils on Horseback. My friend Paula turned us on to them years ago – she stuffed them with goat cheese, wrapped them in thin-cut bacon, and broiled them until the bacon was done. (Obviously a Muslim wouldn’t wrap a date in pork!) The contrast of salty, sweet and creamy is amazing.

I brought home a box of chocolate-covered dates, which my colleagues gobbled up. Now I’m dreaming of that appetizer…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

Imagine the countryside dotted with cattle. Replace the image of cattle with camels. Now picture herds of camels loping across the desert sands, trailed by a white-robed shepherd.

This is the enduring vision I will keep of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Not the skyscrapers that soar high above the Persian Gulf, nor the Emiratis shrouded mysteriously in abayas and kanduras, but this majestic animal icon of their history.

1941590_10201667805282346_1661266698_oFor centuries the Arab tribes roamed the desert, bedouins whose simple life revolved around the camel. The camels carried them across the vast windswept sands, provided milk and yogurt and meat, and eventually gave up their skins and hair and even their bones for tents, clothing and other necessities. A man’s worth was measured in part by the number of camels he owned.

The camels have long since given way to Ferraris and palaces and other lifestyle choices of the rich. But the Emiratis still keep herds of camels, perhaps to remind them of the humble roots that preceded their oil wealth. Even today, they race their camels and take great pride in winning. There is even a camel beauty contest.

I had a brief immersion course in ‘camel’ on my trip to UAE. We stopped by the race track at Al Wathba and watched the camels train. Then on to Al Ain, an oasis surrounded by 3,000 farms and the highest concentration of camels in the world.

As we drove to Al Ain, herds of camels appeared now and then against the beige and rust-colored sand. When we pulled over to the side of the road, the inquisitive animals would come right up to the fence line to ponder us.

They are handsome – white (primarily from Sudan), brown and black (Saudi Arabia). These are one-hump camels, known as dromedary. They can go two weeks without water and they can live for 50 years. Their small heads are dominated by doe-like eyes and comically ridiculous lips and teeth, offset by narrow mid-sections. Their giraffe-like legs taper to plate-sized padded feet.  They make the craziest sounds (audio/video here).

Al Ain still houses a camel souk in the plains below Jebel Hafeet, the brutish limestone mountains that separate Dubai from Oman. The market is divided into more than 100 neat pens, where a thousand camels (and goats, sheep and cattle) are corralled for potential buyers to ogle.

Expensive white SUVs slowly circle the paddocks, often filled with parents and children, selecting the camels or other animals they want to buy. A camel destined for slaughter goes for 3,000 dirham, or about $850. (At the market, camel meat is cheap – less than $3 a pound.) A cow, which will provide milk and birth calves for years, sells for 10,000. And a fortunate leggy animal chosen to work with the highly-prized racing camels can fetch 24,000 dirham.

camel souk

camel souk

We lingered at the camel souk, enthralled by the beautiful beasts, from week-old babies to full-grown animals that top 7 feet high.

On the drive back to the city lights, it was easy to dream of the centuries when man and camel roamed the endless desert, before oil rigs rendered the camel obsolete.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

You may have heard: Washington DC is full of snow wimps. Even the threat of snow prompts schools to close and governors to order a state of emergency.

Here in Alexandria, Winter Storm Pax has dumped eight inches of snow, which is now being crusted over by sleet and rain. Ugh, some heavy-duty shoveling awaits.

But today’s snow is just a blip compared to some of the worst snowstorms we’ve weathered here. A recap, with thanks to NOAA — and apologies to my friends and family who live in REAL snowbelts. The difference is that you can handle it. Here, not so much.

January 7-13, 1996. NOAA calls it the Great Furlough Storm because it came on the heels of the infamous federal government shutdown. Just as federal workers were about to return to work, Mother Nature intervened. By the time three separate storms blew through, Washington was buried under up to 3 feet of snow. At our house, Will’s friend Nick came for a sleepover and wound up stranded at our house for several days. Fond memories of seeing those childhood buddies romping in the snow.

February 15-17, 2003. Call this one the President’s Day storm. Much like the current storm, this one started down south and moved up the eastern seaboard, dumping 16 inches to 26 inches of snow. Will and Sam built snow caves in the front yard.

February 13-14, 2007. The Valentine’s Day sleet storm. Snow turned to ice which knocked out power. Sam was visiting a friend at Boston College by way of Jet Blue. The airline canceled hundreds of flights and stranded Sam, who wound up taking the train home on a trip that took 12 hours. Jet Blue took years to recover from an operational and PR disaster.

December 18-19, 2009. The Christmas Eve storm dumped 16 to 18 inches of snow on all three area airports at the start of the holiday travel season, snarling air traffic for the rest of the holiday.

Snow Men

Snow Men

February 5-10, 2010. This storm spawned the nickname Snowmageddon. It was really two back-to-back storms. The first dumped 18 to 32 inches of snow, followed a few days later by another foot. The one-two punch broke the previous record set by the Knickerbocker storm of 1922, infamous for a collapsed theater that killed 100. At our house, we were relieved that Sam was still home for an elongated holiday break before he went abroad for a semester. Young strong shoulders.

What are your most vivid snow memories?

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening


I was talking with my mother, cell phone in hand, idly straightening things as I walked around the main floor of our house. Then I walked past the living room window and froze: A police car circled our cul-de-sac and parked in front of our house. Followed by a second police car.

I hastily bid adieu to my mother (sorry Mom!) and hollered to CRR, “There are two police cars parked out front!”

Why the panic?

A seemingly random killing in Alexandria had occurred two days earlier, following another in November. Both within a mile of our house.

We like to think we live in a small town. Alexandria, Va., has fewer than 150,000 people, and the fabric of this city is still as tightly woven as when George Washington called it home. Many conversations include the phrase, “You know so-and-so, right?” and the answer is usually yes.

So these two recent unsolved murders in a neighborhood where crime is almost nonexistent, following on two earlier killings since we moved here, have rattled an entire community. The murders have this in common: The victims were shot in broad daylight in the entryway of their homes, either suggesting they knew the killer or unhesitatingly answered the doorbell as most people do in this area.

Or did, past tense. We are all paying attention to our surroundings now.

We talk about the oddball connections with the victims. The latest, Ruthanne Lodato, is the sister of my longtime gynecologist, who lives just a few blocks over from us. The November victim, Ron Kirby, was a respected transportation planner who was known by several friends and colleagues. One of the earlier victims, Nancy Dunning, was a real estate agent who wanted to sell our house on Windsor Avenue at a price we deemed too low (turned out her estimate was spot on, ruefully). Another was Robert Rixse, a doctor in our pediatric practice.

If you live in a minority or poor neighborhood of Washington, murders happen all the time and rarely break into the Washington Post metro section. But these killings made the front page, occurring as they did in an affluent neighborhood where everybody knows your name, as the “Cheers” TV slogan went.

It is a comfort to know that Alexandria is such a caring city, even as we mourn the dead and speculate about the possibility of a serial killer.

Back to the police presence on Sunday. I walked out and asked the three policemen what was going on. They said they had a “message to deliver” to my next-door neighbor. It probably wasn’t good news, but it was a relief to know it wasn’t related to the murderer in our midst.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening