“If you want to know anything about a person, a culture, a family, you go to their home and eat at their dinner table,” says Chef Jerome Grant. Herein lies the grounding mission of Sweet Home Café, the restaurant he helms in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The eatery provides much more than sustenance; it is an exhibition space within itself. The food Grant and his team serve is a historical project, an edible archive. Its menu visits all corners of the United States and investigates the indelible influence of the African diaspora on the American palate. Plates chart a challenging trajectory from slave trade to share crop to segregation, the flavors are purposeful and proud.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and his enduring, if not yet actualized, vision, we visited Sweet Home Café's recipe for oyster pan roast. It’s featured in Joe Yonan's America the Great Cookbook (Weldon Owen). Grant’s pan roast recipe is, in many ways, a tribute. Here, he explains the story behind the dish:
The recipe itself is a tribute to Thomas Downing, a Black oysterman from Virginia who had come to New York City. He began harvesting oysters and selling them back in the 18th century. At that time, New York was full of oysters and other seafood, before they ruined the river. So that’s what he did. He started off with a street cart, right outside Grand Central station. People would line up around the corner for his oysters. Since he was the son of freed slaves, he was able to buy land, so he bought his own tavern and began selling oysters himself. It was a two-story tavern: He would have live shows upstairs where he was selling his oysters but downstairs would serve as a stop on the underground railroad.
It was around Grand Central Station, so he was providing opportunity as well as great service to the high-ups of the city—the congressmen, the well-to-do—and he was also bringing in Black folk through the back door and helping them with new beginnings. He would literally sell his oysters around the world, even to Queen Victoria. The crazy thing is, when he died, the New York City Chamber of Commerce shut down, the whole city shut down to honor him. The mayor actually attended his funeral. This is a Black man in the 1800s.
Two things he was famous for were pickled oysters and his oyster pan roast. So essentially, we just made a simple straightforward oyster pan roast recipe: Heinz chili sauce, Worcestershire, horseradish, white wine, shallots, and some cream. It’s to showcase the story and this man who’s done so much, not just for fishing culture, but also for Black culture. A lot of people don’t associate African Americans with these types of things, especially in those days.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more as needed
- 12 oysters, shucked and liquor reserved
- 1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
- 2 tablespoons chili sauce (like Heinz)
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream
- Salt, to taste
Have you eaten at Sweet Home Café? Tell us about it in the comments!