Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., waved the 8-inch blade of a the handmade custom chef's knife before his eyes on Saturday night and whistled, attempting to command the attention of Taste of the South's VIP crowd at the gala's inaugural live auction in the lower level of DAR Constitution Hall.
Each of Long's feet was planted on the squishy seat of a dining chair, and beads of sweat rolled from his forehead as he hollered for bids on the stainless steel "Tyger," one-half of a set of knives valued at $1,000.
"I thought falling off the chairs is one thing, the knives are another, but the knives and the chairs together -- probably not a good idea," Long told HOH after the auction, with a hearty chuckle.
More than 30 years of auctioneering experience helped Long keep a rowdy crowd, tipsy on Catoctin Creek Sazerac cocktails, courtesy of the Purcellville, Va., distillery, focused on the night's charitable purpose. Proceeds from the auction would be distributed to nonprofit organizations combating poverty, homelessness and other worthwhile causes in Washington, D.C., and the 13 Southern states hosting the gala. Generous bids, combined with ticket sales and donations, helped Taste of the South raise nearly $500,000, according to Leslie Shedd, a South Carolina Committee executive member.
“Any time I can donate a piece and it’s for a great cause or something I care about, I try to do it,” said D.C.-based artist Kari Kant, who flashed a big smile when the auction of her American flag-inspired acrylic painting closed with an $800 bid.
Kant, a Fairhope, Ala., native who moved to Washington nine years ago for a job on Capitol Hill, said Long teased her for being a “struggling Hill staffer” turned “struggling artist.”
Upstairs in the general admission area, around 2,000 displaced Southerners now employed as Hill staffers, lobbyists and nonprofit advocates feasted from disposable plates on deep-fried delicacies, including hush puppies, mini corn dogs and alligator bites.
Virginia’s crab cakes, Louisiana’s gumbo and Florida’s key lime pie bested oysters, sausage rolls, ham and ice cream in an informal HOH crowd survey of attendees’ favorite foods. Barbeque also ranked high in the standings, but the vast variety of meats and sauces, and fierce state rivalry, made it tough to declare a winner.
“We used to joke that there’s too much barbeque,” said North Carolina native Jennifer Brooks, who served as chairwoman of the event in 2011 and counted Saturday as her seventh Taste of the South. “But every state is so different, so what’s considered barbeque in Texas -- brisket, is what I would call it -- is not the same as North Carolina barbeque. There’s a lot of competition.”
The young, party-ready crowd eschewed cans of Tennessee’s Sun Drop citrus soda, bottles of North Carolina’s Cheerwine and a tower of Coca-Cola products from Georgia in favor of plastic beverage cups from the venue’s ample array of open bars.
A steady stream of belles in ball gowns and gentlemen in bow-tied tuxedos queued up for the food-a-palooza, and eventually migrated toward the dance floor.
Although the night’s theme was a 1920s-style “Roaring Southern Nights,” the play list wasn't exactly Jazz Age vintage. Motown hits from live act Coast2Coast brought couples to the dance floor. HOH overheard revelers comparing the female lead singer of Coast2Coast to Beyonce, and the band covered a wide range of hits from the ‘60s, ‘70s and modern day Top 40.
Black cards scattered among tabletop decor encouraged party-goers to catch a ride home (or to the Georgetown after-party) with Uber DC when the fun wrapped up around 1 a.m Sunday morning.