By Raymond Ward, Chicago Crusader
AWESOME!: The national’s newest jewel, the majestic National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), will be dedicated and open to the world this weekend. Much will be written about the Smithsonian’s newest $540 million dollar structure and the incredible exhibits and artifacts it houses.
Having had the opportunity to view and explore the museum last week, I can tell you that it is definitely worth the trip to Washington, D.C. Seeing a Tuskegee Airmen Airplane, or a Segregation-era Southern Railway car; the re-creation of Philadelphia’s iconic Mae’s Millinery Shop, or Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, the eight story Museum will bring some to tears, some to a greater sense of pride and some just a good feeling about being Black.
However, there’s also a space in the Museum which in it’s own way tells the story of the African American experience…and it’s the Sweet Home Cafe, the NMAAHC’s in-house restaurant…and let me tell you that any restaurant that has “cornbread and pot likker” on its menu immediately deserves a visit.
Sweet Home Cafe, housed in the NMAAHC is the newest dining experience at a Smithsonian museum. Managed as a joint venture by Thompson Hospitality and Restaurant Associates with celebrity chef, Carla Hall, co-host of ABC-TV’s “The Chew,” Sweet Home Cafe showcases the rich culture and history of the African American people with traditional, authentic offerings as well as present-day food traditions. Behind Executive Chef Jerome Grant, Sweet Home Cafe uses the very best version of classic dishes and employs a high degree of from-scratch cooking with locally-sourced ingredients. The Cafe (which is actually more the size of a Shopping Mall Food Court than a Cafe) tells the story of the regional offerings in four distinct stations and guest can watch as the food is prepared, providing a full sensory experience and culinary engagement for each visitor.
The Creole Coast – The cuisine of the Creole Coast has become world renowned for its unique blend of flavors and ingredients along with its laborious cooking techniques. It reflects a wide variety of cultures, including West African, Native American, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Acadian.
Sample menu items offered:
Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits – featuring the premier corn-product from popular Columbia, S. C.-based Anson Mills alongside smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy Tasso.
Pan-fried Louisiana Catfish Po-boy – served with red pepper remoulade and green bean pickles.
The Agricultural South – The South has always been our country’s breadbasket. The long growing season has established it as an agricultural powerhouse. Products such as corn, grits, Virginia ham, pecans and peaches have become staples of the American diet.
Sample menus items offered:
“Our Version” Buttermilk Fried Chicken – with black pepper cornmeal waffles, sorghum syrup and farmhouse butter.
Original Brunswick Stew – featuring braised chicken and rabbit, corn, tomatoes and lima beans. While both Virginia and Georgia lay claims to the original recipe, the Cafe preparation of the dish promises to be the best version, period.
Gullah-style Hoppin’John – a traditional New Year’s Day lunch dish in the American South. While the origin of the name elicits many theories, the dish itself is commonly made with rice and black-eyed peas, both readily available in the South and familiar ingredients to slaves native to West Africa. The authentic Gullah-style version is served in Sweet Home Cafe where the black-eyed peas are substituted with sea island red peas.
The North States – Both freed people along with those who had escaped the chains of slavery found refuge and opportunity in the North. The offerings include northern indigenous products along with flavors and techniques that people brought with them upon their migration.
Sample menu items offered:
“Smoking Hot Caribbean-style Pepper Pot” – a dish inspired by the Caribbean and West Indian immigrant communities that have settled in the northeast.
Thomas Downing-inspired NYC Oyster Pan Roast – named after a free African American from Virginia who relocated in New York City. Downing operated a renowned oyster cellar, Downing’s Oyster House. Downing and his son housed escaped slaves in their basement as part of the Underground Railroad.
The Western Range – After the Civil War, many African Americans sought new opportunities in the West. This cuisine was strongly influenced by Native American and Mexican culture. Familiar ingredients such as corn, peaches, turkey and squashes took on new flavors by the addition of chilies, wild sage and Mexican oregano.
Sample menu items offered:
“Son of a Gun Stew” – amended from the more colorful version of the expression, a classic cowboy dish of the American West. Many freed slaves migrated West and took jobs as ranch hands where they made this dish using whatever leftover cuts of beef were available as the prime cuts went to market. The stew was made with ingredients that were held on the chuck wagon such as barley, dried tomatoes and root vegetables.
Pan Roasted Rainbow Trout – served with cornbread and mustard green stuffing and hazelnut brown butter.
Sweet Home Cafe will operate from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. on days the museum is open and entree prices range from $8 to $15.