Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sweet Home Café Cookbook

From Smithsonian:
A far cry from your typical mess hall, the Sweet Home Café offers a large menu of complex dishes intimately connected with the African-American experience. Helmed by Maryland-born executive chef Jerome Grant, the Café categorizes its diverse, but invariably hearty, meals by region of origin: Agricultural South, Creole Coast, Northern States or Western Range.

These regions are likewise a roadmap of the just-released Sweet Home Café Cookbook from Smithsonian Books, which graciously ushers the mouthwatering entrees, desserts and sides of the Café directly into the homes of readers. The agricultural south, once the nexus of plantation slavery, was the site of wide-ranging African-American culinary innovation from colonial times onward. Scant resources and brutal circumstances meant that a spirit of creativity was required to survive. Pioneering black cooks like Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved personal chef, or George Washington Carver, who ideated scores of novel uses for the peanut, helped lay the groundwork for a gourmet legacy.

In the Café Cookbook, Smithsonian chefs showcase updated takes on southern classics including chicken livers and grits (an evergreen example of culinary resourcefulness), fried okra (complemented by a dip of rich pimento cheese aioli), buttermilk fried chicken (a favorite at the museum), crackling cornbread (named for the pork rinds that impart a husky flavor to the product), and the tried-and-true New Year’s concoction known as Hoppin’ John (whose defining ingredients are black-eyed peas and rice).

The flavors of the Creole coast, a sizable stretch of territory rimming the Gulf of Mexico, diverge significantly from those of the southern staples above, largely due to the region’s confluence of disparate immigrant cultures. “Local foodways mixed and mingled with those of Europe, Africa and the Caribbean,” write coauthors Albert Lukas and Jessica B. Harris, “as well as with those of Native Americans through extended contacts within the Atlantic world.”

Creole selections from the cookbook include pickled Gulf shrimp (seasoned with allspice berries and celery seeds), Frogmore stew (a boiled blend of shrimp, crab, kielbasa sausage and corncobs), a catfish po’boy sandwich (the pride of New Orleans, served on a “French-style loaf”), and, for dessert, a filling rum raisin cake (whose molasses flavoring gestures to the region’s deep history of sugarcane cultivation).

Many tend to think of African-American cooking as strictly southern, but black chefs exerted ample culinary influence in New England and environs as well. The northern states region of the Sweet Home Café Cookbook—“which includes not only the ‘mythic’ north of the enslaved but also the north of the Great Migration”—was a hotbed of African-American experimentation with seafood recipes. The text notes that black northerners in early America would often leverage their culinary chops to climb the social ladder, as Rhode Island oyster and alehouse entrepreneur Emmanuel “Manna” Bernoon did upon his emancipation in 1736. (Read more.)


julygirl said...

I once read that potato chips, once called Saratoga Chips, originated from a chef in a hotel in that area of the State of New York who, incidentally, was African American.

elena maria vidal said...

That's fascinating! I don't think we can over estimate the influence of African culture on American culture, especially when it comes to cooking, music, and storytelling.