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Sweet Home Cafe Lets Visitors Taste The Rich History Of African-American Food


The restaurant inside the National Museum of African-American History and Culture offers food that satisfies your hunger and a space that satisfies your mind. NPR's Wilma Consul gives us a taste of what's cooking inside Sweet Home Cafe.

WILMA CONSUL, BYLINE: When you walk into Sweet Home Cafe, don't get overwhelmed. It's not a sit-down restaurant.

MARIE SHAW SIMMONS: Now, do I get any bread or anything?

CONSUL: You'll have to figure out where in the country you want to eat. There are four regional serving stations. Marie Shaw Simmons picks a New Orleans classic from The Creole Coast.

SIMMONS: I got a catfish po' boy and watermelon and tomato salad with yellow watermelon. Isn't that beautiful?

CONSUL: Miss Marie says her plate takes her back to Durham, N.C., where she's visiting from.

SIMMONS: This is Southern cooking. Catfish is Southern. And so that's what it reminds me of, reminds me of home.

CONSUL: A young woman from Washington, D.C., Shari Hills, goes for the ultimate comfort food in The Agricultural South.

SHARI HILLS: I had fried chicken, baked beans, macaroni and cheese. The macaroni and cheese is the bomb, so try the macaroni and cheese.

CONSUL: The other two stations are The North States and Western Range. There's a belief that Southern dishes equals soul food equals all of African-American cuisine. Curator Joanne Hyppolite says that thinking narrows black people's contributions to American food.

JOANNE HYPPOLITE: They had a long presence in kitchens all over the United States, whether that was on a railroad car, on ranches in the West, in wealthy people's homes throughout the North and plantations of the South. They were there contributing to all types of American cuisine.

CONSUL: Hyppolite chooses an entree from The North States.

HYPPOLITE: I'm having the pan-roasted oysters. It's in this rich tomato-base sauce. And they cook it on demand for you.

CONSUL: Thomas Downing, a son of freed slaves, inspired this dish. He owned an oyster bar in New York and used his basement as a stop for the Underground Railroad.

ART BUSHKIN: So I like The Western Range...

CONSUL: Fewer people check out The Western Range station. It's cowboy country, so you get barbecued Buffalo brisket, black eyed peas empanada and something called Son of a Gun Stew. Sweet Home Cafe doesn't just offer food that people already know. It wants to introduce dishes and educate those unfamiliar to African-American cuisine, like Art Bushkin from Virginia.

BUSHKIN: First of all, I don't totally know what's on my plate. We don't recognize the names, but you can't go wrong. It's just very different and very wonderful.

CONSUL: On opening weekend last month, executive chef Jerome Grant and his hardworking crew fed a multitude.

JEROME GRANT: It was anywhere between 7,000, 8,000, I believe. We ran through, like, 2,000 pounds of chicken over the weekend.

CONSUL: Grant moved from the National Museum of the American Indian's Mitsitam Cafe. That's the motto for Sweet Home. In the dining area, images and words that tell of African Americans' relationship with food surround you. A black and white photograph covers an entire wall. The subject - the Greensboro Four sitting in protest at Woolworth's counter in 1960. Tori Richardson-Hill of Minnesota says while eating, she shared stories with her family.

TORI RICHARDSON-HILL: This was a very smart move on the museum's planning to have this as part of the museum experience.

CONSUL: By the time you leave Sweet Home Cafe, you'll be filled with a rich history of African-American food ways and with good food. So no worries here - well, except maybe eating too much. Wilma Consul, NPR News, Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let me try some of this barbeque. But I don't need a bun. That bread - I'm cutting back on bread. I know you're looking and saying, oh, you need to. I understand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wilma Consul
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