WASHINGTON, D.C. – Freedom Day, Juneteenth, marks the moment in United States’ history on June 19, 1865, when the remaining 250,000 enslaved African Americans in Confederate states were legally declared free two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
In the century-and-a-half since, the Juneteenth holiday represents a time to gather with family and community, to honor the present and to reflect on shared history and tradition. This year’s commemoration at the Smithsonian’s African American Museum (National Museum of African American History and Culture) explores the “sense” of freedom by highlighting the music, food and experiences of African Americans.
Inside the museum at Sweet Home Café, Executive Chef Ramin Coles of Restaurant Associates has created a special menu to celebrate Juneteenth. The Café will be offering a number of delicious choices including Whole Hog BBQ, Yeast Rolls, Smoked half Chicken with Cherry BBQ sauce and House-made Pickles, St Louis Ribs with a choice of BBQ Sauces and White Bread, Louis Armstrong Red Beans and Rice with pork, Stewed Tomato, Okra and Corn, Coleslaw and Potato Salad. For a sweet home finish, two tempting desserts are on the menu with both Cherry Cobbler and Red Velvet Cake. Iced tea and Cherry Lemonade are available.
Wright: How did you decide what to prepare for the Museum’s Juneteenth menu?
Coles: I did some research and the museum jumped on it even before it was named a federal holiday. I was inspired by Texas barbecue. I use red in a lot in the dishes. It’s color of the holiday that stands for the blood of the people or the resilience of the people. So, we highlighted recipes to reflect that and incorporated a few of the recipes from the Sweet Home Café cookbook.
It’s the first time we’ve done whole hog barbecue. We’ll serve different sauces on the side. One is made with cherry cola, cherries and chiles that we cook down and then add tomatoes. The mustard sauce represents South Carolina and comes from my stepfather Uncle Oliver’s recipe handed down to my mom and then how I figured it out. The vinegar sauce is from North Carolina. Once on a trip we found a lady selling barbecue out of her barn on white bread with mustard sauce. That was years ago but it was the best I’d ever had.
New Jersey native and longtime DC Metro area resident, Executive Chef Ramin Coles started out at Academie de Cuisine a mere two weeks out of high school. From there he earned an externship at the Clyde’s Group in Chevy Chase, later cooking at Kincaid’s where the legendary Bob Kincaid taught the teenager both cooking and life lessons.
Staying in the area and working under some of DC’s best-known chefs, Coles partnered with Chef Tracy O’Grady to compete in the prestigious international Bocuse d’Or championship. With such diverse and extraordinary experiences under his belt, he went on to work with Jeff Black at Black Salt and then Black Market and credits him as the person who gave him the confidence to develop his own recipe ideas. From that intense growth period Coles went on to Founding Farmers and later to the catering operation with Wolfgang Puck at The Sunset Room. He is now the Executive Chef at Sweet Home Café.
Wright: Did you learn how to cook from your family members? What are some of your memories of growing up around food?
Coles: My grandmother and mom are both great cooks and my mom would make most anything for me. When I was young, I would sometimes stay with my great-grandmother and she taught me how to make pancakes, because my mom wouldn’t let me eat pancakes. As a family we would go fishing a lot. We would go out on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay and and and my mom would catch rockfish. There was a guy on the dock would scale it and clean it and wrap it up for us. One day my grandmother, who was a seamstress, made the fish with Stovetop stuffing – sewed it up with a needle and thread. It was so delicious. I got to see a lot of different things through them.
When I was a kid my stepfather’s family had food trucks parked at the Smithsonian, so I spent a lot of time around here. I think my dad bribed the guards to look after me so I wouldn’t get kidnapped.
In summers they took me to the Italian neighborhoods in New Jersey where my grandmother made certain I tried a lot of different types of food. One day when I was in Middle School, I robbed a beehive. It was like a Disney cartoon. We cracked open the floorboards at this old house and took out five gallons of honey from the hive – wax and all. My grandmother said we had to process it right away otherwise the bees would follow the honey back to our house.
For the first anniversary of this federal holiday, the museum also plans include a variety of family-friendly virtual and in-person events and programs to celebrate Juneteenth. As you stroll through the galleries you will hear a newly created playlist by music curator Steven Lewis and see the museum’s display of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s original speech from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on view from June 9th through June 20th in the “A Changing America” exhibition curated by NMAAHC Curator Joanne Hyppolite.
Seating at the Sweet Home Café is on a first-come, first-served walk in basis. No reservations accepted.The National Museum of African American History & Culture is located at 1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560. MORE JUNETEENTH: New Black History Museum Opens in Alexandria, Virginia