WASHINGTON – Carla Hall had tasted the food at the National Museum of African American History and Culture before. But the chef and television personality from “The Chew,” who serves as a “culinary ambassador” for the museum’s Sweet Home Cafe, had never tried it like this: surrounded by visitors enjoying their first glimpse of a museum that has mostly hosted construction workers thus far.
As she took her first bites during Wednesday’s media preview day, she was impressed: “This is so nice. The pepper pot is really good,” she said of the Caribbean dish. “I think they’ve developed the recipes more” since the last time she came in for a tasting. Also on her plate: a smoked haddock and corn croquette, and some honey-roasted carrots.
“I tend to be drawn towards the vegetables and sides because I feel like I can eat more,” said Hall. “And also, well, I just love vegetables.”
She loves the museum, too – and when she reflected upon what it meant to have a museum of African American culture on the Mall, it nearly brought her to tears. Here’s what Hall has to say about the cafe, the artifacts and this immense cultural moment for America:
A “cultural ambassador,” if you’re wondering, is kind of like a cheerleader. “My involvement really is not the day-to-day,” said Hall, who did not develop any of the recipes on the menu. “My involvement is to get people excited about the cafe and to show how it is just as much a part of the exhibition here as the rest of the museum.” That means she’ll be making appearances at yet-to-be-scheduled culinary events at the museum, where she’ll interact with visitors and promote the educational components of the menu.
She prefers the restaurant’s new name. It underwent a last-minute change due to a trademark dispute, but Hall prefers Sweet Home Cafe to the old name, North Star Cafe. “I think there are no mistakes in the universe, and this feels a lot more comforting,” she said. It’s also a better way “to make the connection to how the kitchen and food plays a role in the African American home.”
Don’t see your favorite dish on the menu? Don’t worry. “The menu is a living, breathing thing. Food is a living, breathing thing,” she said, noting that the menu will change four times a year. “If someone doesn’t see a particular thing they love, they’ll have to come back, and maybe it will be on the menu. It’s really hard: You have 400 years of history; how are you going to put 400 years on a board, and how are you going to cook all of that food?”
She predicts the menu will change people’s perceptions. Some people may know African American food only as soul food. “I think it depends on where you’re from. If you’re from the South, then you’ll find everything from the North unexpected,” she said. “I don’t think people, unless you grew up in the West, think of black cowboys.” It’s because the museum is like an exhibition within the museum – and that makes its chefs curators. “No longer do you have to have this narrow view of what African American food is,” said Hall.
You’re going to need a bite after you see some of the exhibitions. Not only is the museum enormous – this reporter logged 3.5 miles on her phone’s fitness tracker during a press preview, enough to work up an appetite – but taking a break for a meal will be a way to let the sorrowful stuff sink in. “After seeing the museum, and dealing with heavy social issues,” said Hall, it’s important for guests “to come back as a family, or with friends or as a group, and decompress and talk about what they saw.”
She actually hasn’t seen much of the museum yet. “I want to see the foodways exhibit. That’s definitely on my list,” said Hall. An exhibition about sit-in protests at lunch counters also appealed to her, as did a segregated rail car, “because I spend a lot of time on Amtrak.”
But thinking about what she’s going to see makes her get a bit emotional. “I’m going to try to say this without crying – they’re tears of joy,” she said. The museum “has been a long time coming. Just the pride in knowing that people will get to know us and who we are and what our contributions have been and not just learn about us through a depiction in the media or how people want to see us or think they know us. . . . It’s like, hello, world! Get to know us!”