The first glance at the fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans and cornbread served up on the cover will evoke warm memories of Sunday suppers and special celebrations. That is precisely what the “Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebrationof African American Cooking,” releasing Tuesday, Oct. 23, is meant to do for anyone who treasures the comfort of sharing food with family and friends.
“It’s a wonderful, historical, cultural story-telling cookbook. It’s far more than just a collection of recipes. It’s telling the story of a people,” says Albert Lukas. The co-author and supervising chef of Restaurant Associates in Washington, D.C., traveled across the U.S. gathering recipes, stories and guidance from black chefs and home cooks before collaborating on the concept for the food program at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC). The work of historian and cookbook author Jessica B. Harris helped Lukas and Sweet Home Café’s executive chef Jerome Grant develop the menus for the museum’s Sweet Home Café and the recipes now featured in the cookbook.
“The great thing is as you look through the book, you see pieces of history. You see a lot of historical information, but then you see a lot of these amazing recipes that many of us grew up enjoying,” says Grant, who co-authored the cookbook. Grant is particularly fond of the stories the cookbook tells about the food African-Americans prepared on the Creole Coast, including catfish po’boy, Hoppin’ John and pickled gulf shrimp. “The food from there is something wonderful, and it has this cool story behind it. It’s everything from main dishes to side dishes that you are able to create and cook from those recipes,” says Grant.
A Cookbook of Regional Cuisine
Just like the Sweet Home Café’s food stations, the cookbook offers recipes from the geographical regions associated with the migration of African-Americans within the U.S. The presence of African slaves and free Blacks in the Northern States, Agricultural South, Creole Coast, Continental States and Western Range produced unique food traditions that are still influencing American and international cuisine today. The cookbook offers recipes for some of the café’s most popular dishes from those regions as well as signature dishes and recipes inspired by other traditions. “For comfort food, the buttermilk fried chicken from the Agricultural South is second to none,” says Lukas. “And for me, one of those recipes that really resonates a great deal is Thomas Downing’s NYC Oyster Pan Roast from the Northern States.”
Both of the café’s chefs are thrilled about the excitement the cookbook has already generated. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson praises the collection of 109 recipes as “a celebration of—and an education in—the cuisine that helped forge the culture of this country.” James Beard Award-winning author Michael Twitty calls the cookbook “a heartwarming guided tour through African-American culinary history that sparkles with all the fervor, dedication, and innovation of the café itself.”
The stylish layout of “Sweet Home Café Cookbook” presents historic photos from the museum’s collection and mouth-watering pictures of salads, sides, soups, entrees, sauces, snacks and sweets. The culinary stories are combined with recipes for fried green tomatoes, Maryland crab cakes, hickory-smoked pork shoulder, pan-roasted rainbow trout, banana pudding and other delectable dishes. Some of the recipes include suggestions for reducing fat or calories to make the dishes healthier.
The cookbook is designed to give readers the feeling they are sharing food, conversation and tradition with loved ones. “This is just like a celebration and a beginning to understanding African-American food. People can identify with that, and at the same time, it gives them a way to be a part of it,” says Grant.
The café will also give visitors an opportunity to share in the excitement surrounding the publication of the cookbook. “One of our stations will be converted into a “Sweet Home Café Cookbook” theme that will run at least six months. Each month, we are going to rotate different recipes from the book onto that station,” says Lukas.
Lukas and Grant expressed gratitude for what they have gained from their involvement with the café and the cookbook, that is, a deeper appreciation for the vital role food plays in the history and culture of African-Americans and other peoples. They are also looking forward to the continued growth of the café’s success through the dedicated work of a committed staff. Chef Grant can envision another cookbook coming out of the innovations in the café’s kitchen and the museum staff’s wealth of information about the contributions African-American chefs and cooks have made to the culinary world. “It’s been an amazing journey,” says Grant. “To get to know Joe Randolph, Marvin Woods and others, and to know what they’ve done for this industry as well as for the images of African-American people.”
“Sweet Home Café Cookbook” can be purchased from Smithsonian Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads and other book sites.