Updated: Aug 25, 2020
One of the 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America heads up a cafeteria?! Yes, you read that correctly. A visit to Sweet Home Cafe, headed by Jerome Grant and located inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), demonstrates exactly why so much has been written about this chef and the cafe itself.
The NMAAHC, a long-awaited museum on the National Mall exploring the inalienable entanglement of the African American experience with America's history, opened in 2016 to huge crowds. The museum remains one of DC's most popular and for good reason. It's haunting, huge, and personal. It explores a tragic, complicated history and allows visitors to literally walk through the darkness and into the light (the space is physically designed to mimic the progression of Blacks throughout decades of slow and uneven advancement in America). I won't say much more about the museum itself other than no visit to DC is complete without spending some time there (I recommend a full day), and always check the website for ticket info as the NMAAHC remains crowded.
Now imagine the massive physical and metaphorical space that is the NMAAHC in DC. How does a restaurant that serves thousands of people a day stay true to its mission? By embracing food as a living history -- a testament to Black roots throughout America, from the Creole Coast to the Agricultural South. Each station in the cafe is dedicated to a region in which the African American experience has shaped and continues to shape the cuisine. Two years of research and the insights of many Black chefs went into designing the menu. Dishes are designed to feed and teach people. Seasonal dishes often speak to aspects of the Black experience in America or honor African Americans from throughout history. Sitting in the dining area you are surrounded by Black culinary history. For example, a photo of the Greensboro Four from the famed 1960 lunch counter protest hangs large and proud on the wall. It reminds us of how far we have come and how integral food is to that history. A quote on another wall reads: “We [Black people] have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.”
We have, and it's evident in the food at Sweet Home Cafe. My mother remarked that for cafeteria food, Sweet Home Cafe may be the best she's ever had. The fried chicken was crispy and well seasoned, the greens slightly acidic but not too soft or mushy, and the crab stuffed whitefish is a dish you'd expect anywhere but a large loud cafeteria. The menu has all the foods that the masses will embrace and enjoy, but with a few twists to surprise you. It will bring you to a new appreciation of Black food beyond the classics that everyone knows and expects. It will prompt you to consider, in all of its tasty glory, how and why staples of African American cooking have become more broadly associated with "American food", woven into our modern diets. For all these reasons, and the fact that the food is just plain good, I'll return to Sweet Home Cafe while in DC. I might even skip the museum and just go for lunch. I truly believe that food is a real live historical exhibit, maybe even the best way to explore a little history.
Update: As of early 2020 Chef Jerome Grant has departed Sweet Home Cafe and now leads Jackie, a modern American restaurant in Navy Yard, DC.