In conversation with Adrian Miller
Miller's latest book brings the scholarly treatment to barbecue culture and celebrates the African Americans who influenced and enriched this uniquely American cuisine.
On this edition of Hangtown Fry, we’re sharing an interview with Adrian Miller, from The Well Seasoned Librarian podcast.
Miller is a food writer, attorney, self-professed “cuehead”, and longtime certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado. Miller’s first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the James Beard Foundation Award for Scholarship and Reference in 2014. His second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas, was published on President’s Day in 2017. His most recent book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (2021), is a celebration of African American barbecue culture.
Culinary Historians of Northern California is proud to sponsor The Well Seasoned Librarian, one of the fastest growing podcasts in the food space. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. We thank Dean Jones of The Well Seasoned Librarian podcast for granting permission to transcribe and broadcast.
We encourage you to have a listen to the full episode. Read a complimentary chapter of Miller’s Black Smoke. (From time to time, Culinary Historians of NorCal may provide its subscribers with select portions of legally purchased, copyrighted works under the fair use doctrine.)
According to your bio, you’re a recovered lawyer, who previously worked in politics as a special assistant to President Clinton. Tell us about that experience.
I practiced law and it wasn’t for me, man. It got to a point where I was singing spirituals in my office. So I figured that I should do something else. I was going to open a soul food restaurant in Denver. But then a law school classmate called me out of the blue to say that she was working in the Clinton White House. She asked if I had any friends back in DC whom they could hire quickly. And I said, “Well, tell me about the job?” It was the One America Initiative, which was an outgrowth of President Clinton’s initiative on race. Essentially, the core idea was, if we could just talk to one another and listen, we might realize that we have a lot more in common than what supposedly divides us. After she told me about this position, I did the same thing that Dick Cheney did when George W. Bush asked him to find a Vice President: I was the head of the search committee and my name was the only name put on the list. I ended up working for President Clinton at the very end of his second term and really enjoyed it. One America was continuing the work of racial reconciliation. That was a great time.
How did you become a food writer?
The short answer is, unemployment. (chuckle)
I had just finished my job in the Clinton White House and was trying to get back to Colorado. At that point, my ultimate ambition was to be elected senator of Colorado. When I returned to Colorado to jumpstart my political career, the job market was really slow. I was watching a ton of daytime television (I'm not even gonna tell you what shows). And in the depths of my depravity, I said, I really ought to read something. I went to a local bookstore and found a book called Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History (1987), written by John Egerton. For anybody interested in Southern food history, that’s a book that you must have as part of the canon. In that book, Egerton wrote that the tribute to Black Americans in American cookery had yet to be written. I thought that was really interesting. The book, at that point, was already 14 years old. So I just emailed him out of the blue: “Hey Mr. Egerton, you wrote this a while ago. Do you think this is still true?” And he says, “Ya know, nobody’s really done the full story. People have done pieces of it, but not the full story. There’s always room for another voice. Why not yours?”
So that’s what really launched me on this journey.
How did you become a certified barbecue judge?
[At this point] I’m already endeavoring to write this book on the history of soul food. Because barbecue is such a part of African American food culture, I thought I’d have a chapter dedicated to it. Then one day in 2004, I was reading my local newspaper. There was an ad that said, “Come and be a barbecue judge!” So I head down to the Adams County Fairgrounds in the suburbs of Denver. When I walked into the room, there were about 70 people in the room and I was the only dude under two fiddy. So I knew what my future was going to be like. Basically, I thought they were going to teach me how to cook, but it was really more about the logistics of the contest.
The categories are beef (which is usually brisket), chicken (usually chicken thighs), pork spareribs, and pork shoulder. And you judge the barbecue on three criteria: taste, texture, and appearance on a nine-point scale. Then they tell you the rules of the competition; some of these are quite arbitrary. I was learning under the Kansas City Barbecue Society rules. For example, in that certifying body, you can only present your barbecue on three types of greens: green leaf lettuce, flat leaf parsley, and cilantro. Even if you made the best barbecue in the world and presented it on collard greens, it would be illegal or disqualified. After that, they bring out barbecue so you can get the hang of scoring. They purposely bring out something illegal, just to see if you would catch that. If you don’t [catch that], then they’d say, “Wellll, Adrian you should’ve known this.” And then you stand up and take a barbecue oath. It’s a sacred thing and I don’t repeat it in public because I know some people are going to mock it. A few weeks later, you get your badge in the mail. With that badge, you can go judge in any Kansas City Barbecue Society competition. The thing is, when I became a judge, there weren’t many of us at that point. It wasn’t hard to become a judge in a competition. But now, barbecue is soooo popular and judges are so numerous that, to be able to judge a contest is almost like hitting the lottery.
But I gotta tell you, it’s the best conversation I’d ever had. People are like, “Oh, you worked in the White House? That’s nice. But you’re a barbecue judge? I wanna talk to you about THAT!”
On “seasoned” gatekeepers in publishing, and how they stifled Black food writing.
When I first started working on the [Soul Food] book, I reached out to a lot of noted Black food writers to verify that what Mr. Egerton said was true…that nobody had really done the grand work [of writing about African American food traditions]. I thought, surely somebody must have done this! It turned out not to be the case. A lot of these food writers told me that you can write this book and do the research, but there’s just not a lot of information out there because this country is racist and Black cooks have never really been celebrated. “So cobble together the best book that you can with the limited resources available,” they said. I didn’t think it would take me that long to write the book, if there was only so much information out there.
Now, these food writers didn’t know about this new-fangled thing called the Internet. When I got on the Internet, I quickly had enough information to write five books. The original vision was a book that would be one-third [about] cooks, one-third about the culture, and another third about the cuisine. With all this information out there, I decided to focus on soul food because that is the most recognizable aspect of African American food traditions, in my mind. To research the book, I read 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people, 500 cookbooks (not all of them authored by African Americans, because I wanted to put soul food in culinary context), and thousands of newspapers and magazine articles. I talked to hundreds of people about what they thought soul food is, was, and will be. And then because I cared SO much about my subject, I decided to eat my way through the country. I went to 35 cities in 15 states and ate in 150 soul food restaurants. A lot of people are surprised that I’m still alive.
I decided to create a representative soul food meal, and write a chapter about every part of the meal. I would explain how it got on the plate, what it means for soul food culture, and provide recipes…traditional, health conscious, and fancy ones too. The ultimate meal that was presented in my book was something like this: Entrees would be fried chicken, catfish, and chitlins. Side dishes were greens, black eyed peas, mac ‘n’ cheese, and candied yams. I also wrote about cornbread, hot sauce, red drink (because I believe Red Kool Aid is the official soul food drink). I couldn’t decide on any dessert in particular, so I wrote about four: pound cake, peach cobbler, banana pudding, and sweet potato pie.
The closest thing at that time to [scholarly Black food writing]…was Jessica B. Harris, who is acknowledged as the grand dame of African American food writing. But nobody had really taken a scholarly approach. I do believe it had something to do with publishing because of all the haterade [I got] when I approached publishers with my idea: “Nobody is going to read this book. Nobody wants a scholarly treatment of soul food.” And because I was a fairly new writer, they did not have confidence in me. One publisher said, “You’ve only written for newspapers, so why don’t you go write for some major publications and then come back.” What’s interesting is that I would be in these conversations with publishers, but the younger publishing assistants who were there … I could tell they were digging the project and wanted to go for it. But the seasoned person didn’t want to do it.
It’s frustrating because the vibe was this: “Hey, there’s already a book on soul food out there, so why would anybody want to put out another one?” Keep in mind, the books that were out there were already 20 years old by the time I started writing. It is mystifying. Look at the volume of books that come out on French food, Italian food, Chinese food. Name the cuisine, and there are at least four or five books out every year. But African Americans can only get one book. Or zero. So yes, the attitudes that publishers had toward the subject was definitely a factor.
On the inspiration for writing Black Smoke (2021), and the extensive research involved.
I’d always endeavored to write about barbecue. Initially, it was to be a chapter in Soul Food, but I thought, no, it really needs its own treatment. In 2004, I’m watching The Food Network and I see a commercial for Paula Deen’s Southern BBQ show. I watch the show and 60 minutes later when the credits are rolling, I see that there were no African Americans featured on the show. I thought two things: (1) How does this happen in 2004? (2) Well maybe I got it twisted, maybe I was watching Paula Deen’s Scandinavian Barbecue. Then I started looking at other TV shows on The Food Network and other places. It was the same story: either no African Americans featured or African Americans were bit players. And that is just crazy.
Anybody who knows ANYTHING about the American South and barbecue knows that African Americans were pivotal [to that cuisine]. There have been decades of media coverage that essentially just featured white dudes. I don’t think people knew how much African Americans had contributed to barbecue. So Black Smoke is really a celebration of African American barbecue culture and a thump on the head to say, “Look, if you’re gonna talk about barbecue culture in the United States, you must include African Americans.” It is a restoration of African Americans to the barbecue story.
Rather than do a plodding, chronological history of barbecue, I chose to write the book in a thematic way. In many of the chapters, I explore themes, such as, this whole theme of church barbecue. I call that particular chapter “Burnt Offerings”, because barbecue has been distracting to my spiritual journey. Every time I read the Bible and I see references to burnt offerings, I start thinking about barbecue. The Burning Bush story … I wondered to myself, did it smell like oak to Moses? Or hickory? Those kinda things.
I also tried to include one or two people who are interesting figures from barbecue history, plus recipes.
I primarily researched newspapers for Black Smoke, because you won’t find a lot of African Americans in cookbooks. Newspapers were very good about capturing the daily life of the Black community. By the early 1800s, there are references to barbecues on a grand scale. It is interesting to see how barbecue writing has changed over the course of the nineteenth century. In the early years, it was pretty spare, that is, references listed the names of the hosts, the number of guests, the location, and maybe a description of what was served. Over time, you start to get more details about the cooks themselves, what exactly they cooked, and descriptions of the cooking process. By the late 1800s, you see these barbecue cooks being interviewed and specifically named. Throughout American history—at least in newspapers—it was not common to have an African American named, because of the status of Blacks in this country. These people were considered unworthy of recognition, so newspapers might cite a first name, at most. Usually, preceded by “uncle” or “auntie”, which is kind of derogatory.
But by the time we get to the twentieth century, it was clear that African Americans dominated this trade. So if you were going to write an article on barbecue, it would be really weird to leave Black people out.