Food

Make the African American History Museum’s Best Dishes at Home With This New Cookbook

The "Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook" was released Tuesday.
Photograph courtesy of Smithsonian Books.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe has built a following for its celebration of African-American cuisine. Now, with the Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook, you can re-create its sticky pork ribs or spicy pickled okra from your own kitchen.

The cookbook, released Tuesday, corresponds with some of the museum’s exhibits. Curious about the history of Thomas Downing’s NYC oyster pan roast? Head to the Foodways exhibit on the museum’s fourth floor to learn about the New York oysterman whose tavern doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. And then, you can make it yourself.

Thomas Downing’s NYC Oyster Pan Roast. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Thomas Downing’s NYC Oyster Pan Roast. Photograph by Scott Suchman

We chatted with Sweet Home Cafe executive chef Jerome Grant about the diversity of African-American cuisine, the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and more.

Why translate the museum cafe into a cookbook?

What we do is celebrate African-American heritage, and we definitely do it through our food. It’s a big part of the African-American community.

The cookbook showcases many different regions and ingredients. Why was it important to dig deeper into these aspects?

Because it helps showcase the migration of African-Americans throughout the United States of America.

You see the Western Range, where a lot of African-Americans migrated after slavery, for new beginnings. They were chuck wagon workers who actually cooked for the people who were working on the railroad tracks. So it was just this great synergy of recipes and at the same time, adapting to the location that they were in.

How does the cookbook build on the mission of the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

It just shows how much African-Americans have contributed to American history. And at the same time, the resiliency of African-Americans—what we have been able to accomplish through the bad times and pushing forth to the good ones.

Baked Mac & Cheese. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Baked mac & cheese. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Which recipes in the cookbook are favorites from Sweet Home Cafe?

We have a trout dish in there that’s pretty great, a lot of people enjoy it. It’s one of my favorite dishes, it’s located in our Western Range section. It’s a mustard-green-and-cornbread-stuffed trout with hazelnut butter.

Are there any recipes you especially connect with?

It’s the oxtail pepper pot, that’s my favorite. My grandmother is from Jamaica, and it was the thing that you would smell Saturday morning. She’d put it on mid-afternoon to cook for the night and it just sat on the stove top for a good little while. You’d smell those hard spices like the cinnamon and cloves and things like that. It was always reminiscent of home for me.

What story do you hope the cookbook tells about broader African-American culture?

I hope the cookbook tells the story of just how much we’ve done for American history, honestly. A lot of people kind of get lost with, “Oh, this is just African-American history.” Well, no, a lot of it is American history, and we’ve been a huge part of it.

High Mesa Peach & Blackberry Cobbler. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
High Mesa peach and blackberry cobbler. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

What do you hope home cooks experience when they cook and eat these recipes?

That they feel like they are at home. You should be able to feel that sense of being able to cook these great meals with your family, converse over them, and, at the same time, showcase something you may have thought was tough but is relatively simple and straightforward. At the same time, there are people that have grown up with these recipes.

What does “sweet home” mean to you?

Sweet home means everything to me. It’s community, it’s that safe haven. It’s where you’re able to go and get those experiences, feel a part of our family. That’s what we try to do everyday in Sweet Home Cafe, welcome you to our dinner table.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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