Food. It’s a way of sharing and community, a way of exploring a place, of trying new things and calling back well loved memories. Food can be a way of learning about identity, and, at times, exploring history, too.
All of that happens at the Sweet Home Cafe at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. That sort of sharing, exploring, and learning is extended through the cookbook Sweet Home Cafe: A Celebration of African American Cooking.
This cookbook weaves histories of ingredients and people with recipes that may not always be what you expect. Like the dishes offered when you eat a meal in the cafe itself, though, chances are you will have ideas to discuss and things to learn, as well as tasty dishes to explore. If you’re thinking this might be all greens, grits, and gumbo, with maybe a bit of fatback thrown in — think again.
“Black cooking in America includes not only the culinary traditions of Africa and the Caribbean but also the influences of Native Americans, Europeans, Latinos, and and contemporary immigrants from Africa and other countries around the world,” writes Jacquelyn Serwer, Chief Curator of the museum, in her introduction “All of these mingled elements have combined,” she continues, “into a culinary heritage that is broad, deep, and continually evolving in surprising new ways.”
Across history, what you had to cook with and what you had to eat was influenced by what was available right around you. Through the chapters in the book, which are arranged by type of dish — salads, soups, and stews, mains, snacks, desserts, and drinks — the ideas of region, place, and history are sifted into the recipes. That makes sense, as the book is a collaborative project of Supervising Chef Albert Lukas, Executive Chef Jerome Grant, and award winning food historian Jessica B. Harris.
One of the most interesting ways to approach the book is to look at the section called Recipes by Region. The regions are Creole Coast, Agricultural South, Western Range, Northern States, and Culinary Cousins, along with one group called Continental United States and another pointing out Cafe Specials — although, of course, the regional items show up on the cafe’s seasonally changing menu, as well.
What might you find and learn how to make?
Fried Okra, Sweet Onion and Corn Hush Puppies with Red Pepper Remoulade, Bacon Wrapped Pan-Roasted Pork Chops, Buttermilk Tea Cakes, and Sweet Potato Pie are all part of the Agricultural South theme.
Along the Creole Coast, among the things you can learn about are Frogmore Stew (no frogs involved, though), Catfish Po’Boy, Carolina Gold Rice Pilaf, Grilled Snapper with Creole Sauce, and Pralines.
These recipes are mostly straightforward, presented on cleanly designed pages in an easy to follow format, with side notes that may suggest how to make a recipe vegetarian or what substitutions you could make, as well as, for some recipes. comments on its history or how it is used in the cafe.
Dishes that are associated with the Northern States include Codfish Cakes, Yankee Baked Beans, Joe Froggers (no frogs involved here, either — Joe Froggers are spicy molasses based cookies), and Turkey Grillades.
African American cooks were as much a part of the history of the American west as those other regions. As the text points out, this often overlooked part of African American history has left strong culinary traces. Among the recipes evolved from this experience in the Western Region are Black Eyed Pea, Golden Corn, and Chanterelle Empanadas, Son of a Gun Stew (this one is an adaptation of dish chuck wagon cooks made for cowboys), and High Mesa Peach and Blackberry Cobbler.
Culinary Cousins builds on recipes which come from the diaspora, among them Rice and Pigeon Peas from Jamaica, Senegalese Peanut Soup, and Trini Doubles, a Trinidadian street food that brings in influences from Africa and India as well as the Caribbean and Native America.
Some of the recipes have origins from many places across the United States. These are gathered in the Continental United States section, and include Fried Apple Hand Pies, Drop Biscuits, Baby Kale Salad, and Lemon Meringue Pie.
Interspersed with the recipes, you will find photographs and short articles about these regions, their geography, and their connections with the story of African American history.
You will also find stories of ingredients. Did you know, for instance, that the peanut first came to Africa from South America, and then made its way back across the Atlantic with enslaved people? Or that George Washington Carver came up with more than 300 ways to use the peanut? Or that an African American man, Emmanuel Bernoon, opened the first oyster and alehouse in Providence, Rhode Island — in 1736?
You may learn that in slavery times, some enslaved people came from a part of Africa known as the Rice Coast, which ran from south Senegal to Liberia. It’s no accident many of these people ended up in rice growing areas of the Americas, and brought their knowledge with them. No accident that rice dishes came with and from this connection, too, among them Hoppin’ John and Limpin’ Susan, for which you’ll find recipes here..
Field peas, cow peas, black eyed peas came along on the journeys of the enslaved, too, and found their way into those dishes and many others.
Even the names of these recipes suggest travel, journey, change, and home. Making do and making a life with what was available is part of the African American story, part of the nation’s story. It is among other things a story of hardship, persistence, resilience, and celebration.
Food is a way to explore, to connect, to reflect. The recipes and stories in the Sweet Home Cafe cookbook will help and encourage you to do all those things as well as, perhaps, cook up some delicious meals.
Would you like to know more about the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which is part of the Smithsonian Museums? A good place to begin is with the official guidebook.
Photographs of johnny cakes and cobbler are from the cookbook, which features food photography by Scott Suchman, props by Kristi Hunter, and styling by Lisa Cherasky and Carolyn Robb.
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