Food

Cheap Eats 2014: Behind the Bowl

"Peaches" Halton has been in the kitchen at Ben's Chili Bowl for nearly four decades.
Photograph by Scott Suchman.

The U Street neighborhood around Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) may be evolving, but many elements of the historic eatery remain the same. A line forms at noon for chili-drenched half-smokes; you might find anyone, from presidents to construction workers, sitting at the counter; and Bernadette “Peaches” Halton still makes the chili after 37 years. We caught up with the veteran cook responsible for Ben’s most famous dish after her shift—which starts at midnight and ends at 11 am—to talk about her career and her favorite comfort foods.

How did you start making the chili?

I started as a counter person after high school. One day, in ’79, the original owner [Ben Ali] asked me to mix the chili up and put the pot on the stove. I was pregnant with my son—the pots are very heavy, about five gallons. And since then I’ve been making the chili.

Do you have any favorite dishes you like to eat at Ben’s?

No! After 37 years? Well, if I do, my coworker Mary and I have some country bacon or sausage. Though if we were cooking crabs, I could eat them all the time. I love Mike’s Crab House near Annapolis for Buffalo shrimp, clams, and steamed crabs. I’ll also go down to Captain White on the Southwest waterfront and cook my own.

How have you kept the recipe a secret so long?

You just don’t tell anybody! Tell them it’s made with love.

Since you have breakfast at 11 in the morning after your shift, what’s your favorite thing to eat?

A salad or some Ethiopian food, injera. My coworker makes me a house salad with lettuce, tomato, green peppers, and onions, sometimes avocado, and a dressing with hot sauce and lemon.

Celebrity photos line the walls at Ben’s. Who were the best to meet?

I’m really not big on celebrities, but I did meet Eddie Levert, Gerry Levert’s father. Also Mary J. Blige, Wendy Williams, Tyrese. I’d just left [when President Obama visited], but they called me and told me and I was like, “Tell him I say, ‘What’s up?’ ”

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.

Anna Spiegel
Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.