The National Museum of African American History and Culture was recently opened after a century of dreaming and decades of political stonewalling, the ribbon cut by none other than the first Black president, Barack Obama. The third-level restaurant, Sweet Home Café, is not just a place to take a break from exploring 400 years of history—it is a sensual extension of the educational mission of the museum. Surrounding the visitor are panel quotes from various African American culinarians and images of Black chefs past and present, along with archival shots of people of African descent from across the Americas as food producers, professionals, and home cooks. The Café is a reinforcement of the Museum's mission: to take you on "a people's journey."
Perhaps the most jarring in this cathedral of soul are the swivel seats bordering the entire cafe. These aren’t comfy seats to sit on while you enjoy your comfort food—they are décor chosen to match the wallpaper. Looking at you, reflecting in mirrors are the blown up stares of the young men who stood up by sitting-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1961. It’s not just about the food—it’s the message. As you move your fork to your mouth, you’re here to learn and be reminded that social justice and maintaining traditions from Africa to America, and from slavery to freedom, have always been key ingredients in this cuisine.
The menu, built under the consultation of esteemed cookbook author Dr. Jessica Harris, is for the moment divided into four regions—the “Agricultural South,” the “Creole Coast,” “the North States,” and the “Western Range.” These geographical designations point the visitor to the first theme—African American foodways are not bound by the Mason-Dixon line. Africans, enslaved and free people of color, could be found in all of these regions as early as the 17th and 18th centuries. Migration—by choice or by force—moved African-American culinary traditions across the map, using local ingredients to express deep tastes and ancient cooking techniques. Eating our way through the menu we can see the adaption process told through food.
Yes there is fried chicken and offerings of collard greens and different permutations of barbecue, and even a dessert menu replete with sweet potato pie, bread puddings, peaches and cobblers. But there are also some important offerings that give an alternative history illustrating how African people played a part in establishing the American table.
The “North States”
In the “North States,” we see an alternative to the traditional Southern narrative. Pepperpot, a West Indian variation on gumbo with origins on the Guinea Coast of West Africa, makes its appearance in Philadelphia, New York and other Northern cities in colonial times, sold by women hawkers. We also see an ode to Thomas Downing, part of a dynasty of African American restaurateurs in the 18th and 19th centuries who focused on oysters (the “Big Mac” of the 19th century) and seafood. Downing, born into slavery in Chincoteague, Virginia, not only ran the best oyster house in New York, but his oysters were so prized by Queen Victoria she sent him a gold watch. Like many Black caterers, restaurateurs, and chefs, Downing used his wealth and position to fund abolitionist causes.
The “Agricultural South”
Going to the more familiar “Agricultural South,” we see different contributions amplified. Brunswick Stew, complete with the addition of rabbit, recalls a famous one pot meal claimed by Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, and popular in all three. Tomatoes, lima beans, corn, onions and spices mixed with chicken and fresh game like squirrel—and in this case domestic rabbit—reflect the meals prepared by enslaved Blacks for themselves that then became popular among white people. The stew pot full of this preparation became a staple at southeastern Southern barbecues. There is some controversy over the racial identity of “Uncle” Jimmy Matthews, its alleged creator. Tradition recalls he was Black, but revisionists in the age of Jim Crow tried to reconstruct him as a white man. This dish recalls the many attempts to appropriate a contribution of the romanticized Old South Black cook.
The “Creole Coast”
In the “Creole Coast,” we are reminded that the Gulf and Lowcountry are where African-American Southern foods connect with their Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin roots. Duck and crawfish get incorporated into a very tasty gumbo featuring Carolina gold rice and shrimp and grits made with heirloom grain products from Anson-Mills. The return to more traditional varieties and preparations of Southern grain help set Sweet Home apart from expectations it might be a typical soul food, meat-and-three style eatery. There aren’t many surprises here, but it's worth noting that regional ingredients and popular edible heirlooms are being put to work in educating the public about African-American foodways. For many museum visitors it may be their first exposure to either. That Black cooks transformed the bounty of the Southern table to last the year round is reflected in the variety of pickles offered—from okra to green tomatoes, and Afro-Southern takes on chow-chow, a type of spicy relish.
The “Western Range”
The “Western Range” gives us the opportunity to talk about the vanishing attention we give to Africans and African Americans in the shaping of the American West—as pioneers, homesteaders, gold miners, and freedom seekers. Here Black folks put their skills in foraging, hunting, and fishing to the test, learning from and with Native, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo cultures along the way. Not only is there strong evidence that African herding traditions were integrated into the Spanish and Anglo cultures on the range, but by the late 19th century, one third of the American cowboys were of African descent, including a significant number of the cooks on the trail. “Son of a Gun Stew,” here made with more commonly enjoyed meats, was once a junk pot of livers, brains, and other bits of offal highly spiced to make use of every part of the animal. “Whole animal cooking” is nothing new to us.
While the museum will stand solid for a long time as a testimony to the historical contributions and journey of African Americans, its Sweet Home Café menu will change. It benefits from the leadership of Chef Jerome Grant, formerly of the award winning Mitsitam Native Foods Café of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Grant's familiarity with Caribbean and African American and indigenous flavors may hint at what he has to offer. The restaurant also has the guidance of chef Carla Hall of The Chew and Bravo’s Top Chef, who, with her current focus on heritage, will ensure the menu will continue to be an evolving exhibit in itself, challenging all of us to broaden our understanding of what “African American foodways” means to our national identity.