WASHINGTON — Jerome Grant grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, but also visited his stepfather’s family in Hampton, Virginia, and spent summers with his Jamaican grandmother in Philadelphia.
Those experiences helped shape the palate of the executive chef of the Sweet Home Cafe, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum for African-American History and Culture, opening this weekend. The cafe offers an opportunity to educate, with cuisines representing different regions of the country.
“We view our cafe as an exhibit that coincides with the museum,” Grant said. “Looking at our culture and following the migration of our people throughout the United States, you see how we’ve influenced a lot of things, including food. A lot of our menu items tell a story.”
To visit the cafe is to experience black culture through food and fellowship, which has always been central to what it means to be black in America.
The Agricultural South station features recipes traditionally thought of as soul food: chicken and waffles, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, barbecue chicken and candied yams. They are dishes that feel like home for many African-Americans, most of whom live in the South, or have relatives who were Southerners before they migrated North in the early 20th century to escape segregation and find work.
The Creole Coast station offers fare popular in many restaurants today, like shrimp and grits or Louisiana catfish po’ boys. But diners may not know that dishes from the area are inspired by West African, Native American, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Acadian cultures.
Chef Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s “The Chew,” serves as culinary ambassador for Sweet Home Cafe. She said she sees the space as a place for people to decompress after experiencing the weight of four centuries of black history.
“It’s not just an amenity to the museum,” she said. “This is very much a part of our experience. We cooked a lot of different people’s foods, but when we brought it into our home, we made it in a particular way that was uniquely ours.”
Hall’s face lights up as a bowl of shrimp and grits, one of her favorite dishes in the cafe, appears.
“Oh, my God, I love this so much,” exclaimed Hall, a Nashville, Tennessee, native. “Those are REAL grits.”
Hall said she hopes visitors, especially African-Americans, also go to the restaurant and learn something new through food about a culture they thought they knew.
The North station features dishes brought by freed blacks and those who escaped slavery, including a Caribbean-style pepper pot, a stew with meat or fish and vegetables, and an oyster pan roast inspired by Thomas Downing, the son of slaves who went on to become known as New York’s Oyster King and offered his cellars as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Influenced by Native American and Mexican cultures, the Western station includes Son of a Gun Stew, with braised short ribs, turnip, corn, potato and sundried tomato, and a pan-roasted rainbow trout stuffed with cornbread and mustard greens.
As important as the food is the communal experience the cafe offers, as its name suggests. The walls of the cafe’s dining hall are decorated with images and quotes highlighting black America’s relationship with and influence on food. On one wall is a large photograph of protesters from the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s in Greensboro, North Carolina, a reminder of an era when blacks dined separately from whites.
Grant said Sweet Home aims to be just that for all who visit.
“I want you to be able to set this table and have food you can identify with that really wraps all of it together.” Grant said. “For us, food is a sense of community. It’s everything.”
Errin Haines Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous.