How did Colorado’s Adrian Miller, an attorney with degrees from Stanford and Georgetown, go from working in the Clinton administration and serving as a senior policy analyst for former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, to being a James Beard Award-winning writer and documentarian of African American history and cooking?
“The short answer is unemployment,” Miller says, with a laugh. “Basically I was working in the Clinton administration [as a special assistant for the Initiative for One America to address racial, religious and ethnic reconciliation] and at that time in my life, I was trying to get back to Colorado to start my political career but the job market was slow. I was watching a lot of daytime television, so I was like, ‘I should read something.’”
Miller went to the bookstore and found John Egerton’s Southern Food: At home, on the road, in history, a seminal history of food in the South published in 1987. In the book, Egerton writes that a tribute to black achievement in American cookery had yet to be written. So Miller cold-emailed Egerton and asked: Well, has anyone written it? Egerton’s answer: no.
And so Miller set about producing books that, among other things, highlight black contributions to America’s culinary history: Soul Food, which looks at the multi-cultural origins of the soul food tradition, and which netted Miller that James Beard Award; and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, which looks at how black chefs have served in the White House since the country’s founding, and which was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award and a Colorado Book Award.
Miller’s latest book, Black Smoke (to be released in April), puts black barbecuers, pitmasters and entrepreneurs in the center of America’s long barbecue history.
In Black Smoke, Miller posits what he calls a “maybe controversial” point: Barbecue, as we know it today, began with indigenous people. While Europeans brought quick-grilling methods to the continent, many indigenous tribes had traditionally cooked their meat low and slow — over a few days — in an earth oven, or a pit formed in the ground. What resulted was a hybrid of the two methods, and after enslavement of indigenous people transitioned to enslavement of Africans brought from overseas, Miller says, “Africans became the go-to cooks.”
When we talk about barbecue, we tend to talk about regions —Texas brisket, Carolina pulled pork, variations in Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis, etc. But black barbecue defies region, Miller says, and from the long period of enslavement through Reconstruction, and into the 20th century, black barbecue developed into its own style that’s both part of and separate from what we call Southern-style barbecue.
“The thing about African American barbecue is it defies regional categorization,” Miller says. “Black barbecue is pork spare ribs, chicken and hot link sausages.”
Early black barbecuers also get credit, Miller says, for introducing spicy sauce imbued with red pepper, potentially an offshoot of Caribbean culinary traditions.
Now, that’s all an oversimplification, and you should read Black Smoke to get the full context. It’s important, especially in an age when, for myriad, entrenched reasons, black entrepreneurs don’t have the same advantages as their white counterparts when it comes to opening businesses or writing the history of black contributions in various realms of society.
In fact, Miller says, going back to his conversation with Egerton: “Frankly, I would love to write the grand opus on African American cooking but nobody wants to seem to fund that.”
“I just posted this on Twitter a few minutes ago: Soul Food is going into its eighth printing. I put in the post, maybe it’s petty of me to do this, but I was saying how much haterade I’ve had to drink over the last eight years because of these projects. ‘It’s not a good enough fit, nobody’s going to read it.’ That’s been a constant theme in my career.”
After a year in which the publishing and food industries were forced to reckon with the subjugation of black voices (groups from the aforementioned James Beard Foundation to Bon Appétit to the Court of Master Sommeliers made changes in attempts to increase representation of people of color), Miller says, “I’ve noticed more black writers are now getting more opportunities.” But, of course, the sources of inequity in the food and media spheres are systemic, and mirror those of society at-large.
“For restaurateurs and chefs, the problem is African Americans do not get access to capital to start and run businesses as much as their white counterparts. Since they don’t have access to capital, you rely on financing from your home. You tap your social network to raise money, and black entrepreneurs are at a distinct disadvantage with that,” Miller says. “We know from redlining practices that black homes are under-valued because of the persistent wealth gap in the United States. Black Americans have less wealth than white Americans; that’s why you don’t see a lot of representation in the restaurant industry.
“On the media side,” Miller continues, “the unfortunate thing is most of the people who decide what media stories get told are white. If they don’t value diversity, the spotlight is to going to shine on the … people in their own world.”
Here’s one small example of how the food media can skew public perception along racial lines. If you’re into barbecue or have just watched too much Food Network, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of: Good barbecue doesn’t need sauce. You should be able to taste the meat. Anybody can make sauce.
But, Miller says, “Millions of African Americans would say, ‘Says who?’” They’d “flip that around and say, ‘Anybody could cook the meat.’”
Maybe that sounds like small potatoes, but when a group of mostly — nearly exclusively — white people control the message on food, society’s perceptions of what’s “authentic” or “legitimate” changes and it reinforces the inequity in our social structure.
“The reason you don’t have a lot of African American representation, even though there are plenty of black people barbecuing, is food media has been skewed,” Miller says. “In the 1990s you had the rise of people called foodies — people with money, time, looking for authentic experiences. At the very same time that rose, the media that exploded in order to meet that demand was again white people deciding what stories need to be told. So foodies got a very skewed image of what constitutes authentic.”
Black Smoke is a critical entry into the once-one-way conversation on authenticity. Miller mines historical documents, visits black-owned barbecue spots throughout the country and interviews backyard barbecue enthusiasts to produce a book that enriches our historical understanding of food in America, and sets us up to celebrate black contributions to food, specifically through barbecue, with recipes and places to visit on your next road trip.
Next up for the multi-hyphenate Miller is to figure out a way to “revive our barbecue past” in Colorado. You’ve heard the conventional wisdom that our state doesn’t have good barbecue (Miller says that’s not true, and I agree), but there is an opportunity to look back to indigenous traditions to rediscover culinary techniques with an animal that once roamed these lands: the bison.
“We used to be known for lamb and bison and we got away from it, and I think there’s a real opportunity now to create a signature barbecue,” Miller says.
Native peoples across the Great Plains cooked bison meat between layers of green, moist vegetation atop heated rocks for an extended period of time; then they’d feast.
“I think that could be replicated; we just gotta figure out, did they use a sauce, and if so, what kind,” he says.
That endeavor, along with Black Smoke, is an example of how food helps us marry our past to our present to create a better future. And when Miller says, “You can’t talk about, and celebrate, barbecue in America without including African Americans,” well, one could switch out “barbecue” for quite a lot else.
Preorder Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke at adrianemiller.com/about-the-book/blacksmoke/buy-black-smoke.