Since opening its doors in September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has hosted more than 4.5 million visitors. Many of them, some 1,300 a day, also stop by Sweet Home Café. Like the institution that houses it, the museum’s restaurant seeks to illuminate the African-American story, a mission that continues with Sweet Home Café Cookbook, which Smithsonian Books is publishing in October.
“The book tells of struggle and entrepreneurship, of triumph over hardship, and of invention that grew out of adversity,” says Jessica B. Harris, a culinary historian who wrote the book alongside the restaurant’s chefs, Albert Lukas and Jerome Grant. “It also tells of the warmth of family and the love of hearth and home. In short, it tells through food and recipe the same story that is told by the museum.”
Photos and culinary artifacts help with that goal. For instance, one image shows the cover of Victor Hugo Green’s The Green Book,” which listed hospitable restaurants and lodging for African-Americans traveling in the Jim Crow era. The cookbook’s recipes, too, zero in on cultural significance.
“Our Thomas Downing oyster pan roast is steeped in history,” Lukas says. It’s named for the 19th-century abolitionist and successful restaurateur, famous for Downing’s Oyster House in New York City. Including the recipe, he says, “offered us an opportunity to tell the story of Downing and his contributions to our nation’s history through food.”
The book also features a recipe for Joe Froggers, a molasses-spice cookie named for Joe Brown, an African-American tavern keeper in Marblehead, Mass., who was thought to have gained his freedom through military service during the Revolutionary War. He developed the cookies, originally made of seawater and rum, with his wife, Lucretia. Because they could last a long time, the treats were often used as provisions on clipper ships.
Lukas says that deciding which recipes would be included in the book was similar to writing the opening menu for the restaurant, and selected recipes from the restaurant’s most popular offerings, as well as those that came with a rich historical story. “We’re committed to showcasing foods that are iconic in the African-American community, and that show how African-American ingredients, dishes, and techniques have become staples in American cooking enjoyed by all,” Lukas says.
In addition to each recipe shining a light on some aspect of the African-American experience, Harris says, the breadth and diversity of recipes tells a separate, larger story. ”There is no monolithic African-American story; rather, there’s a glorious mosaic of multiple stories,” she says. “While we share many things, we are also diverse, and in all of our many ways of being, we are very, very much a part of the American story. In fact, it is very difficult, if not to say impossible, to tell it without us.”