The Bard of Barbecue

Photo: Paul MIller

Black-eyed peas. Fried catfish. Lemon icebox pie. Turnip and mustard greens cooked with ham hock, red pepper, garlic and onion. These were foods Adrian Miller ate as a child, unaware of their history. “It was,” he says, “just dinner.” 

That history, it turns out, is complex and controversial, and was poorly documented until Miller, ’91, spent decades researching it. Coined during the 1960s, soul food entered the popular lexicon when the Black Power movement identified the cuisine as heritage and “a line of demarcation between white Southern culture and Black culture,” Miller says. But whereas Black students of that era protested to demand soul food at universities, recent years have seen a reversal, with Black students protesting against being served it, saying it is unhealthy and a vestige of slavery—a way of cooking leftovers from slaveholder kitchens. “They’ll tell you that it’s the master’s garbage,” Miller says, “that you’re digesting white supremacy.” 

Miller’s mission has been to counter such critiques by preserving and sharing the culinary tradition’s history. In 2013, he published Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. And in 2017, he followed up with The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, a book to which he brought the unusual qualification of having worked in the White House on President Clinton’s racial-reconciliation initiative. His most recent project, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, explores one of the most celebrated soul foods and asks why Black barbecuers—who created barbecue as we know it today and still practice their culinary art across America—have been overshadowed by white barbecuers since the 1990s. “The media coverage of these white guys is so intense, comprehensive, and constant,” Miller writes, “that one could easily wonder if black people barbecue at all.” But don’t be mistaken. Miller doesn’t deny that anyone can master the art. “Some of my best friends are articulate white people who,” he quips in Black Smoke, “happen to make fantastic barbecue.” Rather, his books not only explore the conditions that have allowed whites to profit from African American culinary traditions, but also celebrate the creativity of a marginalized people who, restricted from most professions and limited in resources, transformed how Americans eat. 

Miller standing in a kitchen with the White House chefKITCHEN CABINET: Miller, at the White House with presidential kitchen steward Adam Collick in 2015, has unpacked the history of Black cooks advising presidents on race relations. (Photo: Courtesy Adrian Miller) 

A lawyer by training, a former political operative and currently the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, Miller has worn many hats—even that of certified barbecue judge. And true to human nature, it’s the food people care about most. In Black Smoke, he writes, “More than one person has said to me, ‘You worked in the White House? Well, that’s interesting, but you’re a barbecue judge? I want to talk to you about that!’”

For Miller, food is history. “It’s really my family history that gives me street cred,” he says, “because I lose all street cred when people hear I’m from Denver.” Though Miller’s father, Hyman, grew up on a tenant farm outside Helena, Ark., the Air Force relocated him to Denver, where he later became a lab tech. He met Miller’s mother, Johnetta, at church shortly after she moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., to distance herself from a failed marriage. The family’s culinary legacy came with her, learned from her father, John Solomon, a cook for the Southern Railway. “A lot of the Southern dishes that people know now got passed down to my mom,” Miller says. “And then when it came time to barbecue—I mean, contrary to the narrative of barbecue being this all-guys thing—my mom was the one running the show.”

Miller—one of six children—started cooking at age 11, after his mother switched from working at a dining club to pulling night shifts at a Wonder Bread factory. He, his twin sister and his brother took over breakfast, and by high school, he had taken charge of weekend dinners and was avidly watching cooking shows. He was also a standout on the speech and debate team, qualifying for nationals twice. He applied to Stanford on the recommendation of his social studies teacher, Nancy Vanness, MS ’66, and though he also received offers from Harvard and Princeton, he didn’t feel at home at either. “There was something about the idea of an excellent education in California that was calling to me,” he says. “But there’s one more shallow reason why I ultimately decided to go to Stanford. I was a teenage boy. I thought the women would be hotter.” He recalls not being disappointed—at least not immediately: “It was a whole new class of women who told me they just wanted to be friends.”

Miller majored in international relations, a decision rooted in a childhood fixation on French refinement. His parents hadn’t been able to afford the high school field trip to Paris, so at Stanford he chose a major that justified a quarter abroad. He finally set foot on French soil his junior year and had an experience that transformed how he saw his future. On a train, a young French Canadian asked him what it was like to be a Black man in America. “That was the first time I really had to explain race in a nuanced way to somebody who had no context,” Miller says. “That he understood what I was saying opened me up to the possibility of using this skill back in the United States, because in many ways you are speaking a foreign language when you’re talking about equity, unfairness and reconciliation.”

After Stanford, Miller enrolled at Georgetown Law School to become an international human rights lawyer but by graduation was so mired in debt that he accepted a position at a Denver law firm, where he found himself representing employers in discrimination cases. “That caused some angst, because I did not go to law school to defend the Man against minorities,” he says. Soon, he was singing spirituals in the office to get through the day. One law firm later, he was dreaming of opening a soul food restaurant. But then a friend from law school called, asking him to help recruit someone for President Clinton’s One America Initiative, which was developing strategies for racial reconciliation. “I did the same thing that Dick Cheney did when George W. Bush asked him to find a vice president,” Miller says. “I put my name on the list.” In 1999, he returned to D.C. to organize White House summits and invite business and spiritual leaders to speak about diversity. 

After Clinton’s term ended, Miller moved back to Colorado to start a political career, but the job market was slow. Whiling away time in a bookstore, he picked up John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History and read, “The comprehensive history of black achievement in American cookery still waits to be written. From frontier cabins to plantation houses to the White House, from steamboat galleys and Pullman kitchens to public barbecues and fish fries and private homes without number, black chefs and cooks and servants have elevated the art of American cookery and distinguished themselves in the process, and they and all other Americans need to see the story fully told.” 

Miller had found his mission. “So, with no qualifications at all except for eating a lot of soul food and cooking at home,” he says, “that’s what started me on the food-writing journey.” 

That journey overlapped with Miller’s return to public service—from general counsel at a progressive think tank, to deputy legislative director and then senior policy analyst for Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, to executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, building community across racial and denominational lines for social justice. And the journey proved to be long. Miller contacted Black food writers who confirmed the absence of a definitive history of Black cuisine—indeed, a dearth of written records, because the white-dominated publishing industry decided what stories got told and Black Americans had few resources for self-publishing. Miller recalls thinking, “But there’s this newfangled thing called the internet.” People were writing and blogging about food; the Library of Congress and various companies were digitizing troves of old newspapers and magazines and putting them online; and the interlibrary loan system allowed him to search every library in the country and request books. 

‘It’s really my family history that gives me street cred, because I lose all street cred when people hear I’m from Denver.’

But the moment of catalysis was when Miller joined the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an organization dedicated to documenting and promoting the diverse food cultures of the American South. Its 2002 symposium introduced him to the complexity of foodways—a term designating the social, cultural and economic contexts in which food is created and consumed—and fueled his passion for research. “In the process, he becomes one of the most respected and liked figures in the world of foodways,” says John T. Edge, the SFA’s founding director and the author of several culinary histories. “He does that by way of deep archive dives. He does that by way of rolling lots of microfiche.” Edge recalls an event where people were eating and drinking as Miller arrived grinning with an archival document on barbecue he’d found in the University of Mississippi library. “The party swirled around him, but the party was lost to him. He was focused on this bit of mimeographed research. He lives this stuff.”

Those years, Miller spent evenings and weekends at the Denver Public Library. Searching for mentions of cooking, he read 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people recorded in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. “The oral histories of enslaved people fundamentally changed me,” he says. “The breadth of human experience, the stories of evil and just downright sadism—I don’t think this nation will ever truly know the amount of evil committed under slavery and how that trauma is with us today.” 

He kept on. He read thousands of digitized newspaper and magazine articles dating back to the 1600s and 500 cookbooks written as early as 1390—most but not all about African American cuisine, since he wanted to understand other culinary influences as well. He also interviewed hundreds of people and soon had enough information to write multiple books. “Then, because I cared about my subject so much,” he says, “I decided to eat my way through the country. I went to 150 soul food restaurants in 35 cities and 15 states.”

During Miller’s food odyssey, chefs told him about their struggles to sustain the soul food tradition, especially given the critiques. “One is that it’s so unhealthy it probably needs a warning label,” he says. “The other is that it’s a slave food not worthy of celebration.” He addresses the first by saying that soul food’s building blocks are dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes—both increasingly touted by health experts. Furthermore, soul food isn’t understood in context: It originated in holiday festivities of the antebellum South, when enslaved people had access to more of the meat and other ingredients that were generally reserved for white people in order to reinforce the racial caste system, Miller says. “What we think of as soul food today is really the celebration food of the American South, and celebration food is not meant to be eaten on a regular basis.” 

As for the health risks, Miller believes they are overblown. “I don’t know many people eating a ton of soul food,” he says, “but they’re eating a lot of fast food, convenience food and junk food. And a host of environmental factors aren’t taken into account—the stress of generational trauma or long-term exposure to racism and oppression. There’s more and more research validating how that affects health.”

The other critique—that slave food was essentially the master’s garbage and wasn’t worthy of celebration—is more complicated. Miller says that whites cooked many of the same foods, several of which had European origins. Take chitlins—pig intestines—one of the most iconic but divisive soul foods. European cookbooks from the 1700s contain recipes for them. Even sweet potato pie is similar to carrot pie, using the same spicing methods as in the 1700s, but with one sweet root crop swapped out for another. “The whole idea that soul food is just slave food breaks down pretty easily once you start applying some historical scrutiny to it,” Miller says. 

Plate of chicken and waffles

Sliced brisket

Bowl of black-eyed peas

Plate of cornbread muffins

Barbecue brisket sandwichFEAST FOR THE EYES: Miller counters health critiques by explaining that soul food is based largely on greens and sweet potatoes, and that celebration cuisine is not meant to be eaten on a regular basis. (Photos: Courtesy Adrian Miller)

 

But soul food also diverged in its ingredients, influenced by what was available, as well as in its methods, with the line between sweet and spicy more blurred than in white Southern cuisine. With slaveholders rationing starch, molasses and smoked meat, enslaved people often subsisted on seasonal vegetables flavored with meat. “It’s the whole idea of cooking some greens with a ham hock in it,” Miller says. Limited resources required creativity: foraging, fishing and, on lenient plantations, maintaining personal livestock and gardens. “Slaveholders wanted to spend as little as possible to keep their enslaved labor force going,” Miller says. Soul food evolved within these constraints, with the ingredients available, from West African, European and Native American traditions—and continued evolving after emancipation, shaped by the hardship of Reconstruction and Northern migrations as well as by increasing prosperity. Even barbecue, a celebration food par excellence, shifted from whole animals to spareribs and brisket—tougher cuts requiring long, skillful cooking to make them tender without drying them out. 

Complicating the narrative around Black cuisine is that many African Americans were obliged to cook for whites. “There were very few things that African Americans could do professionally without inciting white resentment,” Miller says. After emancipation, presidents who might face white backlash if they appointed a Black cabinet member could curry favor with Black voters by hiring a Black cook. “Emancipation ushered in an age where, over time, presidents increasingly relied on their black cooks for advice on race relations,” Miller writes in The President’s Kitchen Cabinet. But after the civil rights movement, numerous African Americans chose other careers. Today, even as white celebrity chefs capitalize on soul food, many Black people shy away from taking ownership of that legacy. “There’s still a stigma associated with cooking because it was so forced for a long time,” Miller says. 

Black discomfort with soul food also has more pernicious roots. After the Civil War, media campaigns to disenfranchise Blacks ridiculed their cuisine. “Food was a very effective way of conveying that Black people are bestial or childlike. That’s when you start to see the proliferation of the watermelon and the fried chicken and even, to some extent, the barbecue stereotypes,” Miller says. “It’s so powerful that even to this day I know African Americans who are reluctant to eat fried chicken or watermelon with white people around.” With so many Black people distancing themselves from soul food, a space was created for white chefs to be celebrated for it and to profit.

Though often featured on the menus of soul food restaurants, barbecue is its own tradition, with a separate history and set of influences that Miller documents in Black Smoke. And that history is long, with Black people learning the art from enslaved Native Americans during the slave trade’s transition to West Africans. But today, while most Americans agree that barbecue is pork, beef and chicken slow cooking in smoke at low temperatures until fragrant and tender, the consensus comes apart like a perfect brisket when they think of a barbecuer. This question—the kind of person most Americans picture, and why—Miller also explores in his new book. The seed for the project was planted in 2004, when he watched Paula’s Southern BBQ, a TV special hosted by Paula Deen, the celebrity chef since accused of taking credit for the recipes of Black chef Dora Charles, then in her employ. “I was stunned that not one single African American had been interviewed on camera,” Miller writes. Whereas once “even racist whites failed to pass up barbecue made by an African American,” he adds, few people now recognize barbecue’s provenance.

‘You can describe barbecue falling off the bone, but just don’t do it around me.’

This change began in the 1990s, with the rise of foodies and their interest in barbecue. Expensive competitions came into vogue, creating media darlings of four types of white barbecuers: the country bubba in overalls, the tattooed hipster with interesting facial hair, the haute cuisine chef, or a hybrid thereof. “For a long time, barbecue was just menial work with delicious results,” Miller says, “but now that it’s a craft, it’s something you have a lot of white dudes doing, and it’s celebrated.” 

While engaging with the politics of food, Black Smoke doesn’t lose sight of the greatest pleasure of so much culinary history: its taste, which Miller himself gets to appreciate professionally as a barbecue judge. There are four categories—chicken, brisket, spareribs and pork shoulder—and three criteria: appearance, taste and texture. “You’re looking for the perfect bite,” he says. “I’m a sparerib guy. First, you hold it with both hands, and you look at it lovingly. You want to see nice color, a nice glistening of fat, a little bit of char, some evidence that it’s been over flame—not a lot. You bite down in the middle of the rib and as you pull away, you should feel a bit of tug but nice separation. Not all of the meat falls off the bone because that means it’s overcooked. I often tell people, ‘You can describe barbecue falling off the bone, but just don’t do it around me.’” 

His favorite ribs are perfumed with hickory smoke, though some have the fragrance of cherry or pecan wood. The smokiness has to be just right—only a hint of charcoal. His preferences for sauces and rubs depend on where he is. Kansas City: thick tomato sweet sauce with peppery accents. Northern Florida and South Carolina: tangy mustard sauce that nearly overwhelms the senses before playing off. Eastern North Carolina: vinegar and red pepper flakes added throughout the cooking process (unlike the thicker sauces held until the end so they don’t burn), a technique that goes back centuries, with the red pepper being a hallmark of African heritage. 

Miller still lives in Denver and still attends Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where his parents met. “My faith tradition is my touchstone,” he says. “It guides my decisions, how I relate to others and my vision for the world. That’s why I’m motivated to create a shared multiracial future where people respect one another and realize that we’re all in this together.”

The next project he envisages is a guide to using food for racial reconciliation—“a practical roadmap on how to have difficult conversations.” As director of the Colorado Council of Churches, he has often chosen to bring Black and white churches closer through meals. “The act of sitting down and eating with someone is transformative,” he says, “especially when you do it on a regular basis, because it just eases all of the tensions. It lowers barriers, and people are more able to relate to each other.”

Just as reading the narratives of formerly enslaved people helped set Miller on his path, they made him realize how important acknowledging Black Americans’ cultural contributions is for the work of racial reconciliation. He points to the 1619 Project, a New York Times series that, according to its website, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Nonetheless, he says, it has yet to run an essay on food. “Despite all of the horror, my people rose to demonstrate professionalism as cooks and ingenuity creating dishes and equipment to cook those dishes. To see them repeatedly assert humanity in the worst possible circumstances, to see them continue to fight back and say, ‘Now—now I’ve got pride. I’ve got humanity, and I’m going to make you acknowledge what I think is an awesome story,’ it’s really inspiring. I think that’s why for a lot of people, the soul food story is one of triumph.”


Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.