Why You Can't Miss the Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Experience history through food.
The eatery at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is more than a restaurant. It’s a place to rediscover heritage, according to executive chef Jerome Grant.
“You’re being welcomed into our home, to where there’s going to be things you’re going to be able to identify with: There’s different smells, different flavors,” he told Travel + Leisure. “You’ll be able to identify with something and that’s how we really want to make it for our guests to come in.”
The sense of community and multiculturalism reinforce each other at Sweet Home Café, honoring African-American cuisine from the agricultural South, the Creole coast, the Northern states, and the Western range.
The 400-seat cafeteria-style restaurant has welcomed large crowds since its opening Sept. 24. Grant and his team have been working non-stop, and he estimated they had already served several thousand meals in the first week.
“It reminds me of growing up as a kid: smelling the heavy hints of allspice, cinnamon and clove, and the heartiness of the oxtail itself,” Grant said of one of his personal favorite dishes, the oxtail pepperpot.
In tandem with the museum, Sweet Home Café looks to honor African-American history and culture while educating the public. From northeastern staples like oyster pan roast to creole po’boys, the menu serves as a veritable tour of the cuisines and histories of black culture throughout the country.
“Food tells the story of a people. And you can definitely see it through the various cuisines of African-Americans,” Adrian Miller, an award-winning food historian and author of the book “Soul Food,” told T+L. “When you have food and you talk about food culture, you can trace the movement of a people.”
Executive chef Grant’s own story began in his hometown of Fort Washington, Maryland, 15 minutes from where the museum sits on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C. Working in food services was “not a really glamorous job” when he first began his career, he said, and his work at the Smithsonian has elevated cooking to something closer to cultural reverence.
When he became executive chef at Mitsitam at the Museum of the American Indian he created an ambitious seasonal menu, with staples including buffalo brisket and blue cornbread. Faithful to the culture, Grant hosted festivals from local tribes and went out to visit their reservations, bringing many of their traditional cooking methods back to the restaurant with him.
“You could tell the sense of community through food,” Grant told T+L. “Everybody had their part that they played: you have your hunters, your gatherers, you had the ladies that prepared the items for the tribes, so it was just about trying to duplicate that in a more modern day sense.”
Some of the recipes date back to colonial times, including Sobaheg stew, which the Wampanoag tribe shared with the pilgrims when they first arrived in Massachusetts. The hearty fall recipe is made by simmering a variety of pumpkins, nuts or grits, and meat over a period of several hours.
One simple version from Epicurious calls to for most of the ingredients to be cooked in one pot together for two hours before adding the squash for another 30 minutes. Grant has swapped the venison for duck and pine nuts, slowly simmering the ingredients in the fat of the poultry to create a rich autumnal flavor.
The restaurant at the National Museum of African American History and Culture went one step further than Mitsitam, partnering with curators at the museum to educate visitors about some of the notable meals throughout history.
One such tale is that of Thomas Downing, an African American who was born a freeman in the 19th century to abolitionist parents in the North. He went on to open his own restaurant in New York City, at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, called Thomas Downing's Oyster House.
Businessmen, politicians and visitors to the city would line up around the block for his famous oyster pan roast, a creamy soup native to the northeast. But Downing’s Oyster House was known for more than its fresh and delicious seafood.
From the 1830s through the 1860s, the New York staple was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. As the restaurant bustled at all hours, Downing and his son would lead escaped slaves into the basement and feed them a meal before they continued on their journey to freedom.
“To me it kind of identifies with the fact that something as simple as sitting at a dinner table can really bring you so much virtue,” Grant said of Downing’s pan roast.
“I’m sure once they landed at his tavern, it was the meal that was waiting for them. It was a conversation about: ‘Where are you going to go now?’” he said. “To me, a lot of these cool stories circle around the dinner table, they circle around the table and the meal.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Saturday Sept. 24, following an inauguration by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The museum hosts a variety of precious historical and cultural artifacts that display the narratives of African-American history, from the time of slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the present.