An old saying goes that high school class presidents move to New York City and valedictorians come to Washington, D.C. Blame the latter city’s wonky, know-it-all nature (plus big-name colleges like Georgetown and Howard): “People here are lifelong learners,” says Candace Cowan, a longtime Washingtonian, who, with her husband Rod, does what many locals do: heads back to class at night and on weekends.
The Cowans are devotees of the Smithsonian Associates, which offers 750 learning sessions a year. These range from lectures by celebs like Oprah to courses on topics from brain science and neon light-sculpture making. But the Smithsonian isn’t the only place offering quick hits of personal enrichment. Multiple cooking schools and crafty workshops, many with single sessions lasting just a few hours, mean you can go home knowing a bit more about Japanese sushi rolling, Civil War history or flower arranging.
“We’ve done programs on listening to jazz, hikes through Rock Creek Park and a lot of science courses at the Smithsonian,” says Candace Cowan. “You get such interesting people.” Some courses take place in the Ripley Center, a complex of classrooms and lecture halls underneath the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall; others branch out into local parks and restaurants. Classes in 2019 included sampling Chesapeake cuisine and hearing about how to make it with Baltimore chef John Shields, attending an all-day Fair Isle knitting workshop, or taking in a lecture on Martin Luther King Jr.’s political legacy.
Across town in the hip, up-and-coming Petworth neighborhood, The Lemon Collective rolls out an eclectic array of hands-on workshops on the snug second floor of stylish new flower and plant shop She Loves Me (808 Upshur St. NW). Small groups gather for know-how on crafting flower crowns, reading tarot cards or doing indigo dyeing. “There’s nothing magical about the formula,” says co-founder (and proprietor of the flower shop) Holley Simmons. “There aren’t that many evening opportunities for adults to come together that don’t involve drinking or going to a bar. This is nice because people hang out, learn something and often leave with a souvenir.” Past classes have included a terrarium-making class, a how-to arrange flowers session, and a plant care course. Check the website for other offsite instruction like champagne tastings at local bars.
Increasingly food-centric Washington also serves up plenty of classes. Not far from the White House, CulinAerie (1131 14th St. NW) fills its sparkling kitchen-cum-classroom with spatulas-on how-tos nearly daily. “You experience what you’re going to do, and then you have to do it,” says local Kate Byrne, who has taken nine classes here over the last few years. “The first time I did it, I burnt rice; but I moved on to doing lamb shank. They make it fun, the chefs chat with you, and there’s great music.” Plus, you get to chow down on what you prepare, and there’s usually free-flowing wine or beer. In 2019, wannabe Giadas and Gordons learned to make puff pastry and a New Orleans-style brunch—yes, with beignets at the latter.
Commercial kitchen/business incubator Mess Hall (703 Edgewood St. NE) also hosts frequent culinary events in its urban barn-like digs (think polished cement floors and rustic wood doors). “So many people are pining to do things themselves, and this fills that need,” says owner Al Goldberg. “We think it has a ripple effect on localism, too.” Recent offerings included a pig-butchering demo and dinner called “Some Disassembly Required.” Yes, the porker is already dead; no, students don’t actually get to wield knives, but they do get to watch a local butcher doing it up close. The knives are ”sharp enough to take down a person,” says Goldberg. “It’d be too dangerous!”