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Why the African American History museum’s cafe will serve son-of-a-gun stew and other unexpected dishes

The African American History museum opens on Sept. 24. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Of course, you’ll find Hoppin’ John and Brunswick stew and buttermilk fried chicken and barbecue on the menu at the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe. But you’ll find unexpected dishes, too: Son-of-a-gun stew. Pan-roasted oysters. Smoked haddock and corn croquettes with a gribiche sauce.

Just as the museum’s food exhibitions aim to tell the story of African American cooking beyond soul food, so too does the Sweet Home Cafe. In a way, it’s like another exhibition.

I see myself as a partner with the curators,” said Albert Lukas, supervising chef for Restaurant Associates, which will operate the 400-seat restaurant with Thompson Hospitality, the nation’s largest minority-owned food service company. He approached the project like a curator, spending two years developing the menu, doing extensive research and travel, and seeking inspiration from such notable African American chefs as the late Edna Lewis, Leah Chase and Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, and such scholars as culinary historian Jessica Harris, who consulted on the exhibitions. Celebrity chef Carla Hall is a “culinary ambassador” — though Lukas said she signed on after the menu was mostly set, so she did not develop recipes. Executive chef Jerome Grant, formerly of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe, will lead the kitchen.

The cafe is underground but gets natural light from skylights. Befitting its name — it had to ditch its first one, North Star Cafe, after a trademark claim — it is decorated with photos of African Americans gathering for family meals. Its four stations — the North States, the Creole Coast, the Agricultural South and the Western Range — correspond to four regional culinary divides. They also correspond to a cultural exhibition in the galleries, though the Western Range is not represented there. The idea to divide stations geographically was inspired by the Mitsitam Cafe.

Mitsitam “has changed not only the way we’re approaching menu development, but it has changed the guests’ and museum’s expectations as well,” said Lukas.

With a few exceptions, dishes will cost from $8 to $15.

The North States

  • “Smoking Hot” Caribbean Style Pepper Pot
  • Smoked Haddock and Corn Croquets, Gribiche Sauce, House Made Brown Bread
  • Smothered Turkey Grillades, Fried Apple, Sage Gravy, Johnny Cakes
  • Thomas Downing-Inspired NYC Oyster Pan Roast
  • Yankee Baked Beans
  • Seasonal Salads and Sides

Why a Caribbean-style pepper pot? To tell of the dishes diaspora communities brought during the Great Migration. This version is Guyanese, developed with Lukas by some of his employees of Guyanese heritage. It will include braised beef, pork and calf’s foot; the latter “will give it a nice rich gelatinlike texture,” he said. With Scotch bonnet peppers, “it’s going to be spicy. It’s not going to set your head on fire, but there will be a nice noticeable hint of excitement.”

The oysters — from the Chesapeake because of a commitment to source locally — connect with an exhibit about oystermen. Downing was an African American New York restaurant owner active in the Underground Railroad. The restaurant will serve a “very classic New York pan roast that you would find in the Grand Central Station oyster bar,” said Lukas. “We wanted to take a dish like that and tell the story of the man Thomas Downing and his contribution to our history.”

The Creole Coast

  • Duck, Andouille and Crawfish Gumbo, Carolina Rice, Green Onions
  • Gulf Shrimp and Anson Mills Stone Ground White Grits, Smoked Tomato Butter, Caramelized Leeks, Crispy Tasso
  • Barbecue All Natural Chicken, Alabama White Sauce
  • Pan-fried Louisiana Catfish Po’boy, Smoked Red Pepper Remoulade, Green Bean Pickles
  • Candied Yams, Ginger and Brown Butter
  • House Pickled Vegetables and Seasonal Salads

The cafe’s smoker can hold 800 pounds of meat. We’re very excited to fire that thing up,” said Lukas, and to smoke the meats over hickory. The chicken, as well as pork and buffalo in other stations, has its own custom spice rub and a distinct regional sauce.

The Agricultural South

  • Brunswick Stew: Braised Chicken and Rabbit, Corn, Tomatoes, Lima Beans
  • Buttermilk Fried Chicken
  • Lexington Style Barbecue Pork Sandwich, Slaw, Pickled Okra
  • Gullah Style Hoppin’ John: Carolina Rice and Sea Island Red Peas, House Smoked Bacon
  • Slow-Cooked Collards, Cornbread Sticks and Potlikker
  • The “Gospel Bird” Family Platter: Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Mac-n-Cheese, Greens and Buttermilk Biscuits. Serves 2-3

The origin of Brunswick stew is hotly contested — both Georgia and Virginia lay claim to it. Lukas isn’t afraid to pick sides.

“The museum has endorsed that Virginia is the home” of the dish, he said, dating back to the 2003 Folklife Festival, which focused on Appalachia. So the stew will be chicken-based, with locally sourced meat. Lukas expects to sell 100 gallons a week, but the stew won’t be made in huge quantities. “We have a strong focus on small-batch cooking,” he said.

The cafe is preparing 600 pounds of fried chicken for opening weekend alone. Making it takes three days: brining it, soaking it in buttermilk and dredging it in flour and seasonings before frying it. It can be purchased as a family-size meal for $28 with sides, a nod to a classic Southern Sunday supper.

Hoppin’ John is “traditionally done with rice and black-eyed peas, and that’s what we originally had on the menu,” said Lukas. But then he visited chef BJ Dennis, who is trying to bring attention to the influence of the cooking of Gullahs, former slaves in the Carolinas. “He introduced me to all these wonderful local peas.”

The Western Range

  • “Son of a Gun Stew”: Braised Short Ribs, Turnip, Corn, Potato, Sundried Tomato, Barley
  • Barbecue Buffalo Brisket Sandwich, Brioche Bun, Charred Peach and Jalapeño Chutney
  • Pan Roast Rainbow Trout, Cornbread and Mustard Green Stuffing, Hazelnut Brown Butter
  • Black-Eyed Pea, Golden Corn and Chanterelle Empanada, Sweet Tendril Salad, Radish and Crisp Carrot
  • Skillet Corn bread
  • High Mesa Peach and Blackberry Cobbler
  • Seasonal Salads and Sides

This was the most difficult station to plan, because “it was the least known part of African American culinary history,” said Lukas. “Many African Americans found employment on ranches, and many of them were ranch cooks.” The son-of-a-gun stew — which originally had a name unfit for a family museum — is traditionally composed of offal and other less-desirable cuts of meat, but Sweet Home has modernized it.  

While there is a vegetarian option at each station, the empanada is one of the few vegan items.

Grill and Salads

  • “Shoe box Lunch”: Cold Fried Chicken, Macaroni Salad, Pound Cake, Local Apple
  • Baby Kale Salad: Black-Eyed Peas, Grilled Corn, Heirloom Tomatoes, Cornbread Croutons, Buttermilk Dressing
  • Field Green Salad: Tomato, Cucumber, Carrots, Spiced Pecans
  • Hamburger or Cheeseburger
  • Chicken Tender Basket
  • DC-Style Half Smokes, Chili, Onion and Cheese
  • Hot Dog

In deference to picky kids, this station will serve basic fast food. And in a nod to one of the District’s most famous black-owned businesses, Ben’s Chili Bowl, there will be a half-smoke, supplied by Manger’s in Baltimore. Even the grab-and-go option, the “Shoe Box Lunch,” is an opportunity for learning.

“Throughout the whole era of segregation and the protests that followed, it was common to pack your own lunch in whatever you came across,” like a shoe box, said Lukas. He tried to find shoe boxes with a clear top to package them, to no avail.

Bake Shop Sweets

  • Lemon Curd and Blueberry Tart
  • Banana Pudding Trifle
  • “Joe Froggers”: Classic Molasses Spiced Cookies
  • Peaches and Sweet Cream Cupcakes
  • Red Velvet Cupcakes
  • Johnston County Sweet Potato Pie
  • Wild Turkey Pecan Pie

The “Joe Froggers” cookies date back to Joe Brown, a volunteer in the Revolutionary War. Legend has it that at the tavern Brown owned, “his wife would make these molasses cookies. When they baked up, they were as large as the lilies on the frog pond outside the tavern,” said Lukas. They’re flavored with molasses, ginger, allspice, dark brown sugar and rum.

Such stories will be on display to teach guests about the food while they’re in line. And there will be lines. Lukas expects 1,500 to 1,800 diners each day, or 25 percent of the expected number of visitors. About 20 percent of the guests at the American Indian museum dine at Mitsitam Cafe, and 10 percent of all guests visit cafes in the other Smithsonian museums. Lukas suspects that the scarcity of tickets at the African American History museum means people will spend more time there, as opposed to the come-and-go crowds elsewhere on the Mall. Timed tickets will help alleviate some of the rush at the cafe, too.

The goal? Not to run out of food. But if supplies get low, the chef knows where to turn.

“The safety net is that we run almost all of the other museums on the Mall,” said Lukas. “A lot of these ingredients are used elsewhere.”

It’s kind of like asking your neighbor for a cup of flour — except it’s 50 pounds of flour.