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How I Got the Story: Ben Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl

Matt Schudel

I had never spoken to Nizam Ali before, but somehow his call to the paper ended up at my desk. I picked it up my phone around 11:30 a.m. Thursday and learned that Ali's father had died the night before.

His father was Ben Ali, who wasn't exactly a public figure but the place he created certainly was a public institution: Ben's Chili Bowl. I casually mentioned it to some reporters and editors around me, and all of a sudden we were launched on multimedia whirlwind throughout the day. In less than 15 minutes, I put together a brief seven-inch teaser obit for our online Web site, letting the world know that Ben Ali had died. In no time, the story hit the wires, the blogs (including Post Mortem) and TV.

All of that's nice, of course, but my work was just beginning. People often think obituaries are fairly easy to do, with clean-cut blocks of information cleverly repackaged and locked in place. Well, that's hardly ever the case, and it certainly wasn't true about the story of Ben Ali.

Ben's Chili Bowl, of course, is a Washington institution, a meeting place for people of all races and classes that has endured through boom times and bust. (I regret trimming a sentence pointin out that, although Ben's is in a historically black section of town, its clientele has always included people from all races and classes.)

Every D.C. politician -- now including President Barack Obama -- comes to Ben's sooner or later to press the flesh and gain some local street cred. The chili is great (I discovered, pretty early on in my research that earlier this year Bon Appetit magazine called Ben's chili the best in America), and Ben's was famous for its "half-smokes," a smoked sausage served on a hot dog bun that may be D.C.'s lone culinary contribution to the world.

The walls of the tiny diner on U Street NW are covered with photos of famous celebrities and politcos (Serena Williams, Denzel Washington, Bono, Hillary Clinton), and it's been featured in movies and on dozens of TV shows, but the Chili Bowl is still a place where common folks come to eat.

In other words, Ben's Chili Bowl is world-famous but at the same time deeply local. There have been many articles and TV pieces about the restaurant, but -- and this is what made my job especially tricky -- nothing about Ben Ali himself. Bill Cosby was quoted more often in stories about Ben's Chili Bowl than the man who actually founded the restaurant and devised its chili recipe.

So here I was, working on tight deadline under a lot of scrutiny on a story of considerable local interest -- with practically no information about the story's central figure. In my initial conversation with Nizam Ali, I had gotten the names of the family members (who knew that Ben Ali's given name was Mahaboob?) and learned that Ben Ali had fallen down an elevator shaft and broken his back and had dropped out of dental school at Howard University. But Nizam -- who gave up practicing law to work in the family business -- couldn't talk for long, and when I tried to call him back, his cell phone wasn't receiving messages. Fortunately, I had asked him for a second number, just in case, which allowed me to get in touch with his older brother, Kamal.

When I reached Kamal, he was at the mortuary, making funeral arrangements. He said he'd call back when he could. Meanwhile, I dug through everything I could find about the restaurant, including its Web site, online reviews and -- most helpful of all -- stories from The Post on the occasion of the Chili Bowl's 40th, 45th and 50th anniversaries. From this stream of information, I was able to pick out the occasional nugget about the restaurant.

Ben Ali's sons had been interviewed, famous people had weighed in and ordinary diners had talked about Ben's food and ambiance. But, as I discovered, Ben Ali himself had given an in-depth interview only one time in his life -- in February of this year to a paper in India. When Obama had visited Ben's Chili Bowl in January, journalists in India noticed that Ali's sons looked Indian and looked into the family's story.

Mahaboob Ben Ali was born in Trinidad but described himself in the story as "100 percent East Indian." His grandparents had been born in northern India, and Ben Ali was an educated and well-traveled man of the world who had visited India many times. In his later years, he enjoyed watching Bollywood movies. He also said he had fallen down an elevator shaft and broken his back when he was a student at the University of Nebraska (my alma mater, as it happens); some of his family members thought it happened here in D.C., when he was at Howard.

Ben Ali was also a Muslim, and when he married a woman from Virginia, Virginia Rollins, she converted to his faith. In one of the articles I found, Nizam Ali had mentioned that he (Nizam) had never actually eaten a half-smoke because, as a Muslim, he was not allowed to eat pork.

When I finally reached Kamal Ali late in the day -- it was approachng 5 p.m. by then -- I asked whether his father ever ate the food at his restaurant (along with questions about his father's brithdate and his earlier jobs, including an intriguing career as a motivational speaker). Kamal reluctantly admitted that, as a Muslim, his father had never actually tasted a hot dog or half-smoke covered with his famous chili. He really didn't want me to include that in the obituary, but -- I'm sorry, Kamal -- something like that is simply too good to ignore. I knew right away that I had the perfect "kicker," or ending for my story.

By Matt Schudel  |  October 9, 2009; 11:10 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel , Washington DC-area people  
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Comments

It's sad to see the Post including details of peoples' faith against the wishes of the family. The guy never advertised his famous secret recipe or otherwise led the public to believed that he ate the half smokes. Heck, the very fact that he lived such a long life testifies to the fact that he didn't eat there too often.

I thought Ben's was famous for having been the only place to get a bite to eat during the MLK riots in 1968. Or maybe it was after the riots.

I hope the family sues the Post.

Posted by: blasmaic | October 10, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Uhh, sues the Post for what?

Posted by: stevie_in_gp | October 10, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Never say anything to a reporter that you do not want to be published; a simple rule.

Posted by: pioneer1 | October 10, 2009 8:03 PM | Report abuse

Is it just me, or is discussing an obit in the "Post Mortem" blog just kind of tasteless? And using the term "teaser obit" in public? It all seems to lack any sensitivity whatsoever.

Posted by: DupontJay | October 10, 2009 9:31 PM | Report abuse

"It's sad to see the Post including details of peoples' faith against the wishes of the family."
why? I don't really see which religion he practiced to be a "detail" - more of a simple "fact". And if the family has an issue with that being reported they might need to do a little soul-searching. It's not like he reported on which mosque he had attended or which branch of Islam he belonged to. And anyone even a little worldly and/or informed about Islam could have inferred Ben never ate one of his half-smokes...

cool story Schudel, thanks for sharing it.

Posted by: wandering1 | October 10, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

Ben's Chile Bowl is a landmark and Ben built a great following over the years. He should simply be honored for that. What religion he was or what the Post reporter thought to write cannot diminish the institution. I do think it remarkable that he was able to do this while not tasting some of his best (half smoke's and hot dog's).
The moral ethicacy of serving something not fit for your own consumption (by religious mandate) is no worse than a Catholic using birth control...... Who are we to judge the guy?
God bless you Ben (and that's everyone's God I might add)!

Posted by: randybapst1 | October 11, 2009 12:24 AM | Report abuse

The family is not ashamed of their faith, nor should they be. Did the son actually ask that the father's religion not be reported? The son simply asked that the point about the father never having eaten a half-smoke or hot dog not be incuded in the obituary. Maybe he just didn't want that item, which has already been reported several times, be included in the obituary. The reporter did not comply, feeling that to once again use that bit was just too funny to omit. If it had not been reported before, I can understand. But why do it now? For a chuckle?

Posted by: Sutter | October 11, 2009 6:18 AM | Report abuse

Too much process, too much "inside baseball." You got the story and you wrote it on deadline. That's what you're supposed to do. Stop patting yourself on the back, especially when you're boasting about going against the family's wishes during their time of grief, and move along.

This is the journalistic equivalent to a reality TV "confessional" interview. You wrote your obit. Do you really need to now opine about how you wrote it?

Posted by: photomat | October 11, 2009 6:34 AM | Report abuse

We celebrated my older son's 9th birthday in early September of 1986. Late that afternoon, my wife left home for a roadside stand to buy fresh tomatoes for our supper's salad. She never returned home because an errant pilot crashed his Piper aircraft on our car. While suffering from my grief, I irresponsibly made a comment to a news reporter that should never have been published. It resulted in undeserved public scrutiny of the Fairfax County Virginia Police and Fire Department personnel who performed their duty and appropriately responded to the accident. When people are in a state of grief over the sudden death of a loved one, they might say something that is inappropriate for a news media representative to report. News media personnel should be held accountable for this failure to empathize. They should be removed from
their positions for crossing the line and failing to respect the feelings
of those who are grieving over the loss of their loved one.

Posted by: skooter01 | October 11, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

You can do a better job then this for a long standing memeber of the commumity I mean come on you write for the Washington Post not the Baltimore Sun

Posted by: agarnett1000 | October 11, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

The Post took a fact about a private citizen's faith and made it a public joke on the day of his death -- after specifically being asked by the deceased's family not to it. The fact that he did not eat pork had been reported before and confirm by Ben, but the family didn't want it remembered as part of his send off and there was no news reason to include it.

Ali was a Muslim who served everyone and, most importantly, he stayed open at some personal risk during the 1968 MLK riots. No one would have blamed him had he closed as others did. However, his efforts then, both as a restuarantuer and a citizen, helped restore order when there was none.

(Of course, the cops and national guardsmen did have an immediate use for a chilidog stand and so there were many of them handy had any trouble appeared.)

Posted by: blasmaic | October 11, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

One of the interesting things about blogs is learning how other people perceive your work. Much of what the (anonymous) readers have commented on in this posting surprises me, but I suppose that, in itself, shouldn't be surprising.
I will say two things, however. Of all the stories that appear in a newspaper, obituaries should contain the fullest and most accurate version of the truth. They are not meant to flatter the dead or his family -- they are meant to tell the story of a person's life.
Our goal at the Washington Post is to write interesting, compelling, truthful obituaries; to omit one of the most interesting facts about Ben Ali's life would have been remiss.
Second, other members of Mr. Ali's family have commented publicly about their Muslim faith and the fact that they do not eat pork. Contrary to what one of the commenters suggests, I do not think of that as a joke. I think of it -- ironic as it may seem, given Mr. Ali's career -- as a matter of principle.
Matt Schudel

Posted by: schudelm | October 13, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

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