Written by: Geronimo Collins
Thanksgiving Day is less than a week away, with chefs in restaurants and home kitchens across the United States making plans to prepare the annual feast. Our melting pot of 327 million residents will include menu items representative of a variety of ethnic and cultural traditions. We’ll also be reminded through numerous social media posts about the genocide and injustice brought upon Native Americans by European immigrants in the 17th century this day is historically rooted in, making the holiday bittersweet for some. Nonetheless, contemporary celebrations of the centuries-long tradition continue to be more about people gathering over home-cooked meals, and for many families this being the only time of the year they’re able to fellowship. The holiday’s popularity has even had an influence on other countries (I’ve heard that some people from my paternal home of Trinidad and Tobago celebrate Thanksgiving now). Regardless of how or where you celebrate, this annual gathering wouldn’t be complete without its most important component – food. Whether you’re eating at home or going out for dinner, the Thanksgiving meal is often a great equalizer among friends and family. If cooking the turkey or any of the sides is something you’d rather not be tasked with, and you’re based in the DC region, Sweet Home Café has a solution for you.
Located inside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Sweet Home Café has positioned itself at the crossroads of African American food pathways, highlighting cuisine and cooking techniques from the following U.S. regions: The Agricultural South, Creole Coast, North States, and Western Range.
VBH was invited to a tasting hosted by Sweet Home Café’s, Executive Chef Jerome Grant and Sous Chef Ramin Coles. The tasting took place in Sweet Home Café’s dining room, an exhibit in itself that is equally decorative and informative. Quotes from some of the most iconic and influential authors, entrepreneurs, and scholars of American culinary history adorn the walls. Framing each quote are photos of Black people across the Diaspora tending to the earth or standing in front of their businesses, along with memorabilia of popular film, television, and product advertisements in Black culture of the past 60 years. The “dinner table” was set in front of a wall photo of a 1960 sit-in protest at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Knowing the purpose of those sit-ins, we’ve definitely come a long way in order to share this food in a much friendlier environment.
Chef’s Jerome and Ramin refer to the food served at the café as an “edible exhibit.” On view for this event was a colorful spread, some of which were a sage butter rubbed smoked turkey; brown sugar and bourbon glazed ham served with a preserved peach mustard sauce; cider braised collard greens; ginger vanilla candied yams; and cornbread stuffing made with sausage, oysters, and sage. Last but not least, and possibly some people’s favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner, dessert. Sweet Home Cafè’s selection includes maple pecan pie, sweet potato pie, and their signature banana pudding. I didn’t hear a single complaint from anyone in attendance and saw several people going back for seconds (myself included).
Keeping in line with holiday season’s tradition of giving back to those in need, Sweet Home Café’s parent company, Restaurant Associates, has partnered with the DC-based community organization Martha’s Table to donate a Thanksgiving meal to a family in need for every 25 complete meals sold. Having had the pleasure of enjoying such a thoughtfully prepared meal, I highly recommend going with a meal package. You, nor your guests, will be disappointed.
Prior to the event tasting, we had time to talk with the chefs about their Thanksgiving menu, what the holiday means to them personally, and their plans for Christmas. “This is something that people can bring home and actually cook it themselves,” Chef Jerome Grant explains. “You know, at the end of the day, everyone wants to be the hero on Thanksgiving and make a great meal. For us, we want to provide that service to our guests, but also still tell a little bit about our story and tell a little bit about us. A lot of these recipes don’t just come from me and Ramin, but it comes from the folks in the back that come here day-in and day-out. It comes from all these people that you see up here because all of them were on the tasting committee.” Chef Grant continues with how collaboration is key to the café’s success and for guests to always have a sensory experience not just eating the food, but through sharing stories with others at the table.
We discussed the ecology of foods popular in certain African American communities. Such as Yakamein – a New Orleans take on Japanese ramen with Baltimore being the only other city where it’s found – and DC’s mumbo sauce versus Chicago’s mild sauce, both similar in taste and texture but whose origin is heavily debated by natives of both cities. The chefs also shared a bit of insight on their Christmas menu plans. Chefs Grant and Coles expressed that because Christmas is a more widely-celebrated holiday, they want to include even more foods represented throughout the African Diaspora. Chef Grant added, “My dad is Jamaican so there was always oxtail on the dinner table at Christmas.”
Although the majority of us in attendance had never met before, the gathering felt like a Thanksgiving dinner among long lost friends. Where most social events can be routine and inauthentic, the vibe in the room was welcoming and saw strangers of diverse backgrounds and livelihoods genuinely engaging over African American cuisine. It was truly a late morning well-spent. Lastly, I made sure to ask the chefs if there was anything they won’t cook. Their response? “Chitlins and anything not in season!”
For more information on Sweet Home Café, visit https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/sweet-home-cafe
To order from the Thanksgiving menu, visit https://smithsonian.catertrax.com or call (202) 633-6174.
All orders must be placed by Monday, November 25th and can be picked up at Sweet Home Café on Wednesday, November 27th from 10 am – 5 pm or on Thanksgiving Day from 10 am – 12 pm.
Menu Item Descriptions
Smoked Turkey, Sage Butter, Country Giblet Gravy – Free-range turkey brined for two days in maple syrup, then cold smoked and rubbed with sage butter. Served with Cranberry Jam.
Brown Sugar and Bourbon Glazed Ham – All-natural bone-in ham, rubbed with brown sugar, bourbon, herbs, spices, and mustard. Served with preserved peach-mustard sauce.
Cider Braised Collard Greens
Candied Yams, Ginger, Vanilla
Homestyle Mac & Cheese
Down Home Cornbread Stuffing
Southern Style Green Beans, Smoked Pork
Sweet Home Café Potato Salad
Sweet Honey Cornbread
Maple Pecan Pie
Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet Home Café Banana Pudding