On September 24, the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Visitors will be able to see a segregated railroad car from the 1920s and a dress made by Rosa Parks, but they’ll also be able to taste some history at the museum’s Sweet Home Cafe. “We identify ourselves as an exhibition piece,” Jerome Grant, the café’s executive chef, explains. “We’re here to tell stories of African American culture through food.”
The Chew co-host Carla Hall, who is the museum’s culinary ambassador, adds, “I hope that visitors are going to see how broad and different the African American experience is around the country.” Fittingly, the café is set up with four stations, each dedicated to a different region and a menu of dishes specific to that area. There’s the Agricultural South station, which will feature buttermilk fried chicken and black pepper cornmeal waffles; the Creole Coast, which will serve shrimp and grits with smoked tomato butter; the Northern States, which will offer Thomas Downing’s oyster pan roast; and the Western Range, which will have “son of a gun” stew with braised short ribs and barley.
Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris worked with the team to develop the regions chosen for the café, and supervising chef Albert Lukas spent two years working on the menu, selecting recipes that help illuminate a broader story of African American history. Take, for instance, the oyster pan roast made with white wine, butter and chili sauce. The recipe comes from Downing, a free slave who made his way to New York, where he harvested oysters and “opened up a bar tavern where he cooked a famous oyster pan roast that people would line the block for,” Grant explains. The tavern also doubled as a spot along the underground railroad for African Americans looking to travel further north.
For Grant and many members of the team, the cooking is personal. The café is operated by Restaurant Associates and Thompson Hospitality, the largest minority-owned food service company. And Grant has an even deeper connection as well. He says that the hot pepper pot served at the Northern States station reminds him of the one his Jamaican grandmother used to make.
The café, which seats up to 400 people, is also meant to be a gathering space, and Hall hopes that guests will use it as a place to talk through their museum visit: “There are so many heavy issues at the museum,” she says. “In any household, the kitchen is the nucleus. I’m hoping people will go through the museum and want to go to the kitchen as a family.”