the LITERARY HILL: Meet Author Tom Hughes

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Iopen this month’s column with an interview of Tom Hughes, author of Alleys of Washington, DC: A Hidden City’s Past, Present, and Future. Tom is a food historian, author of several books about global foodways, and the former proprietor of DC’s The Potato Museum.

MLF: You and your family used to run an unusual museum in DC and now run an online museum—how do those experiences overlap with your work for this book?

Tom Hughes: In the early 80s, my wife and I provided tours of The Potato Museum collection we had created in Brussels, on display by appointment only in a gallery space of our Capitol Hill home. (In the early 90s, the collection was part of a major exhibition at the Smithsonian called “Seeds of Change”.) After moving to New Mexico, we established the Food Museum Online, among other food-themed projects and books. After university study in New Mexico and the UK, our son, Gulliver, moved back to the Hill.

MLF: With so many tourist destinations in a city like DC, it’s an unusual choice to focus on alleys! Why look at alleys?

TH: I wrote the alleys book initially to showcase Gulliver’s photos. On my regular visits back to DC, I’d accompany him into the favorite alleys he had been photographing, unfamiliar parts of the city for me. I became enchanted, as he was, with their variety and old-world charms, away from the clamor and crowds of the nearby streets. I wanted to know more, and quickly discovered that studying alleys provided valuable perspectives into issues such as urban growth patterns, racism, gentrification, and affordable housing.

MLF: How did you select the alleys you focus on in this book?

Capitol Hill’s alleys are the best preserved and interconnected network in the city. They are safe, walkable and full of variety. For most of the city’s history, alleys were the home of mostly minority groups. Some of those unnamed alleys I named for notable African American women who made significant contributions to the city but are otherwise not memorialized in our nation’s capital.

As a food historian, I also came to realize the vital role alleys traditionally played in a city’s food system. It was in alleys where foods were processed, preserved, packaged, and distributed. Horses and delivery wagons were housed in alley stables and buildings.

I hope the book encourages DC residents to better understand, appreciate and enjoy exploring this hidden and well-preserved historic network. I think visitors will also enjoy, as I have, experiencing a unique and largely unknown part of our nation’s capital.

To find out more about the Potato Museum, please see potatomuseum.com. The Food Museum can be found at Foodmuseum.com. Other releases about food history by Tom Hughes can be found at Bookshop.org.

November Reviews
Alleys of Washington, DC

Tom Hughes’ latest book, filled with history, photographs, maps, and directions for those who’d like to explore the alleys themselves, is sure to delight fans of walking tours, architecture, history, and DC’s most loved neighborhoods. Beginning with L’Enfant’s original 1791 design of the city—that included no alleys—Hughes nods to the growth of alleys through the 19th century as sites that typically housed the city’s working classes. Through mid-20th century revisions of city policy to accommodate the city’s increasing density, the growth of federal office complexes, and late 20th century zoning and development negotiations, Hughes shows the importance of preserving a less visible part of DC’s architectural history. Gulliver Hughes’ sharp and celebratory photos lend a vibrant eye to a fascinating read. Alleys of Washington, DC is available through online retailers.

Georgina Warren

Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers

Georgina Warren’s debut collection is a delightful departure from the weary figure of the “wicked stepmother.” In twelve original fairy tales, stepmothers take redemptive center stage as loving family guardians and encouraging mentors. Drawing inspiration from her own connection with her stepmother, Warren’s writing is fresh, imaginative, and heartfelt; her stories are entertaining and charming remakes of stories of the blended family. Readers can look forward to guest appearances by princesses and princes, dragon mothers, giants, ogres, unforgettable weddings, delicious puddings, and more.

To hear more about the collection and Warren’s writing, tune to “In the Blend,” a podcast about blended families: https://intheblend.com.au/podcast/georgina-warren-on-tales-of-virtuous-stepmothers/

Halcyon: A Novel

A finalist for the 2023 national book award, Elliot Ackerman’s latest novel revises US history—circa 2004—to flip culture war scripts. Martin Neumann, simultaneously an everyman and a jaded college professor, encounters issues of mortality, memory, and the entrenchments of political divisions many US voters would rather ignore than lean into. As “resurrection, a process of taking on a new life” is discovered, as Gore is elected president and gears up to pardon Clinton, as Obama’s presidency is not bad, as activists petition to remove statues of the Confederacy, as conservative politicos challenge scientific progress, Neumann composes a book that meditates on the reconciliation of North and South in the trauma-filled aftermath of the Civil War and social attitudes change beneath his feet.

Elliot Ackerman

Have a Look at Bookshop.org

Don’t have time to get to the brick-and-mortar bookstore you’d prefer to shop at? Looking for alternatives to that enormous online retailer gobbling up local markets? Bookshop.org, an online “affiliate marketing” site, works similarly to other online book sellers—you hop online, browse, read reviews, choose the books you’d like to buy, and ship your selections. Click, click, click—done. Support local, independent booksellers.

Unlike other large web-based retailers, Bookshop.org sends a portion of the sale to the local bookstore of your choice. Like other online retailers, you can create an account and store your information for easy return purchasing. Delivery times are akin to those available through other online retailers. 

All your favorite neighborhood DC bookstores can be found in Bookshop.org’s list of local retailers: East City Books, Solid State Books, Little District Books, Mahogany Books, Capitol Hill Books, Bus Boys and Poets, and Politics and Prose.

Michelle LaFrance is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University. She teaches creative nonfiction, life writing, and civic writing at the Hill Center and blogs about writing, her upcoming writing classes, and writing retreats at writinglostriver.org.