Last year at this time, when Sarah and Bob Nixon hosted one of the annual Sunday Night Suppers, there was competition from snow on the ground and an NFC playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants. Sarah said it was “probably not the best night” to have a dinner party. Nonetheless, people showed up, some snuck a peek at the game (which the Giants won), and everyone enjoyed a marvelous dinner. This year was essentially the same, minus snow and the football game, though it seemed fitting that the 49ers are actually in the Super Bowl that happens this week. The Nixons opened their Georgetown home on behalf of Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, one of 25 similar dinners at mostly private homes throughout the area. The price to attend the dinners ranged from $550 to $1,000 per person.
Naturally, the mix included a number of celebrity chefs. Apart from a desire to help the homeless and to fight hunger, it was their food that was the draw. The chefs included José Andrés, Carla Hall, Alice Waters, Roberto Donna, Todd Gray, Cathal Armstrong, Jeff Buben, Kaz Okochi, Joan Nathan, Jennifer Carroll, Victor Albisu, Cedric Maupillier, Mike Isabella, Scott Drewno, and Jamie Leeds, among at least a couple dozen others and a few mixologists. The chefs contribute their time and the food they prepare. The overall event, which comprises a Saturday night cocktail party—Saturday Night Sips—as well as the Sunday dinners, was created five years ago by Waters, who gets a strong assist from Nathan.
Doing the cooking at the Nixons’ was the team from Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen and its offspring, Artifact Coffee, led by chefs Spike Gjerde and Ben Lambert. The menu they prepared, as with the concept at Woodberry, was an homage to “sustainable agriculture” from the Chesapeake region. There was a rum and rye punch for guests to sip when they arrived, and a passed appetizer of grilled mushrooms, country ham, and onion caramel on a skewer. The six-course dinner included Chesapeake oysters with “fennel kvass” and fish pepper; a winter field salad with beets, salsify, kale, cabbage, turnips, and carrots; poached Chesapeake perch with roe and a sauce of pine vinegar; a “charcuterie pancake” of grilled weisswurst and mustard; grilled beef-rib cap with a potato cake; and a dessert of faux charcuterie made from chocolate salami, brioche with chocolate, a fruited sauce, and a chocolate ganache made to look like a pot of pâté. It was all quite beguiling to behold and delicious to eat. Gjerde treats his food presentation as an artist would a palette.
The food got most of the attention, but the hosts also directed the spotlight to Lieutenant Nathan Rimpf, an Army ranger from Raleigh, North Carolina, who is a patient at Walter Reed recovering from injuries sustained last July in Afghanistan. He lost both his feet. He said he would like to return to Afghanistan because “I feel like I have more to give. All they took were my feet, which were ugly anyway.” He said he’s also now taller, which pleases his fiancée. “Leslie had never dated anyone under six feet… . Now I’m six-one. I used to be five-eleven. He called it “one of the benefits” of his injury. “I was actually six-six the other night because they changed my feet out. That was way too tall.” His candor and self-assurance charmed the room and drew laughter.
Rimpf and other wounded warriors are featured in a documentary the Nixons have made that will air on National Geographic Channel over Memorial Day weekend. The focus is the Fourth Annual American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, which the Nixons organized and host on Martha’s Vineyard. They own the Beach Plum Inn and restaurant in Menemsha, Massachusetts. Their 11-year-old son, Jack, came up with the idea of the “challenge.”
“We flew up 13 recovering heroes and their families, 25 folks total, from Walter Reed & Fort Belvoir for a week of fishing and much deserved R&R,” Sarah said. “Bob and I met Nathan at Walter Reed and were blown away by his incredibly positive and resilient spirit.” She said most of the wounded soldiers who participate in the fishing event are in the first 60 to 90 days of recovery. “For many it is the first trip out of the hospital.”
Sarah described Sunday’s dinner as a gathering of “old friends and new friends. Breaking bread and being around the table are some of the greatest moments. We all do it in the name of providing those things for other people, and these two organizations are incredibly vital parts of the city.”
Sarah said she grew up at 14th and N streets. “It’s become a lot more chic than when I lived there.” Her parents, who were organizers of DC’s original Community for Creative Non-Violence, made the family home into a group home—“really, a commune,” Nixon said—taking in homeless people. “Mom and Dad dedicated their lives to making sure that anyone who was hungry had something to eat. If they needed a piece of clothing, they had a piece of clothing. Anybody who needed a place to sleep, they slept at our house.” She said they had the first overnight shelter in the city. “I grew up in that shelter.”
Including the Nixons, there were 20 people at the dinner, including GSA’s acting head, Dan Tangherlini, and his wife, Theresa; the head of NPR, Gary Knell, and Kim Larson; the Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre and Marc Cipullo; Lieutenant Rimpf’s mother, Cindy Rimpf; Ginny Grenham and Paul Zevnik; Cintia Guimaraes; Lawrence Williams and Nina Rinnerberg; Susan Dimarco and Jeh Johnson; and Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who did a drop-by.
In thanking the guests, Alexander Moore of DC Central Kitchen reflected on the history of the Nixon house, which played a major role in the freeing of slaves in the Washington area in 1840. “Coming together in a prominent way to do something powerful transcends history and houses,” he said. “People who have come together for Sips and Suppers have been trying to do it on a national stage, to break bread in someone’s house, get out of the black-tie gala mold and contribute to positives that really matter, and be part of a model here in Washington, DC, that has value across the country.”