The newest addition to the Smithsonian museum complex, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, might make you hungry for justice, or for more knowledge. Or, it might just make you hungry. There’s an easy answer, because the museum houses the Sweet Home Café, where visitors can continue to learn and experience while eating from a menu planned by prominent chefs and food historians.
The museum manages to be exhilarating, sobering, entertaining and enlightening, all of which is reflected in the Sweet Home Café. The café serves as a bridge of sorts between two halves of the museum. Three floors of historical exhibits are subterranean; an elevator takes visitors down to the bottom floor, where the exhibit begins with the earliest history of African-Americans in North America. The exhibits zigzag up ramps, moving chronologically towards the ground level. There’s literally no escape from the hard truths of the historical exhibits; the elevator only stops at the bottom, and the only way out is to confront history as it moves forward.
The above-ground floors tell another side of the story. While some of the underground galleries are intentionally dark and closed in to evoke the journeys of enslaved persons, the top three floors are bursting with colorful artifacts like Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership and sorority jewelry. Both halves of the museum come together in the Sweet Home Café, which serves food associated with a wide range of African-American history.
The café is actually four mini-cafes that share a dining area. The four geographic areas represent the agricultural South, serving food such as fried chicken, cornbread and greens, the Creole coast of gumbos and pralines, the Northern states, where African-Americans were operating restaurants and taverns even before the Revolutionary War, and the Western Range, where African-American cowboys and soldiers cooked beef, trout and game.
The four regions in the café correspond to galleries in the museum. One of the interesting facts in the Western Range gallery was a display on the Spanish arrival in Texas. While many of us have heard that when Cabeza de Vaca reached Galveston Island, he was accompanied by “Esteban,” an enslaved North African, the Smithsonian refers to him by his full name: Estaban de Dorantes, filling a small gap in Galveston history.
In October, the museum released the Sweet Home Café cookbook, a compilation of the recipes used in the café, adapted for home use. Some of the recipes hew faithfully to the originals from long ago, while others have been updated and simplified. Son-of-a-Gun stew, which the cookbook explains was made with virtually all parts of a freshly slaughtered cow, receives a makeover with modern ingredients. “The café’s homage is less exotic and uses only beef short ribs,” according to the cookbook, while noting that “It is often forgotten that a significant number of American cowboys were African-American and that some of them became camp cooks.”
Even cookies get historical footnotes. Joe Froggers, a molasses spice cookie, were “named for Joe Brown, an African-American who lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts and gained his freedom through military service in the Revolutionary War.” As a tavern owner, Joe Brown’s cookies traveled widely, and the cookbook recipe is almost identical to the one passed down in Brown’s family.