A Delicious Recipe Collection With a Side of History

The Sweet Home Café Cookbook is a fascinating look at African American cooking.

Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook
Photo: Amazon

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. isn't just home to thousands of historical artifacts, documents, photography, and other media. The museum's restaurant, Sweet Home Café, shows the many ways African Americans have shaped the way our country eats through dishes ranging from Fried Green Tomatoes to Senegalese Peanut Soup, to Hickory-Smoked Pork. Since the museum opened in 2016, the restaurant has become such a popular destination that it now has just released its own cookbook with more than 100 recipes from chefs Albert Lukas and Jerome Grant.

Although the colorful, inviting photographs in Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking will inspire you to get in the kitchen, the passages by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris will make you want to sit down and read. Through recipe descriptions and columns on signature ingredients (such as rice, peanuts, and oysters), Harris defines what African American food is. And it isn't just Southern food. It's Northern and Western food, too. It's city food and it's country food. And above all, it is global food, with roots that stretch all around the world, including Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and of course, Africa.

WATCH: Meet Dr. Jessica B. Harris

Harris also pays tribute to the creativity and resourcefulness of black cooks, who created some of our country's most beloved and iconic dishes in spite of scarce resources and unimaginable challenges. She writes of enslaved cooks who "perfected special sauces and stayed up nights basting and turning meats they would never taste themselves," and fried chicken that was packed in shoeboxes and carried north and west during the Great Migration. She writes of the significant yet overlooked number of African American cowboys in the Western states. Many were camp cooks, making dishes like Son-of-a-Gun Stew; others were more entreprenurial, like Barney Ford, a "failed gold rush prospector turned barber turned restauranteur", who opened a hotel in Denver with a seven-page menu in English and French.

More than just a collection of recipes, Sweet Home Café Cookbook is a fascinating, thoughtful look at African American foodways, and how American food wouldn't be nearly as delicious and complex without the many contributions of African American cooks.

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