Adrian E. Miller and the United States of Barbecue

Miller talks about the evolution of barbecue and his comprehensive food journey

On this week’s episode of Food with Mark Bittman, I talk to the incredibly dynamic, incredibly smart, incredibly personable Adrian E. Miller: author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue; James Beard Award-winning food writer; attorney; former special assistant to President Bill Clinton (with his Initiative for One America, the first free-standing office in the White House to address issues of racial, religious and ethnic reconciliation); and certified barbecue judge. Hope this gets you excited for what’s probably the most beloved outdoor cooking holiday. Wow — it’s July.

Below you’ll find a piece from Kayla about Adrian and his newest book as well as recipes from the show. (Don’t have a smoker but want to make the cabbage with one? I teach you on the episode.) Please listen, subscribe, and review! And remember to call us on 833-FOODPOD with all your food-related questions.

A note to paying subscribers — this week’s discussion is on all things burgers, with our very own Kerri Conan fielding questions and comments on Burgerville (though meat-eaters are welcome).

Thank you, as always. — Mark

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Adrian Miller’s ‘Black Smoke’ Disrupts the Origin Story of American Barbecue

By Kayla Stewart

When food scholar and historian Adrian Miller first began researching the origins of barbecue, he didn’t realize the winding, historical journey ahead of him.

“Initially, my deepest thinking of barbecue was that it’s really good, but I quickly found that it’s so much more than that,” Miller said.

Miller, affectionately known as “Soul Food Scholar'' on social media and in food communities, recounts his journey through the incredible history of American barbecue in his new book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. Beyond narratives of white innovation in barbecue, Miller finds a history that is more Black, more indigenous, and more complex than we’ve realized.

“The book is really two parts,” said Miller. “One, it's a celebration of African American barbecue culture. But two, it's a restoration of African Americans to the barbecue narrative.”

The policy-wonk-turned-barbecue-historian traces his interest in barbecue back to his days at the Clinton White House. After serving as a special assistant in the Clinton administration, the lawyer and Colorado native was trying to find his way into state politics. A sluggish job market made this period a bit discouraging, so Miller turned to books for guidance. While browsing the food section, he came across a book from the late food writer, John Egerton. During his career, Egerton has written about southern food, the Civil Rights movement, and Black Americans’ contributions to American food. As Miller was browsing through Egerton’s book, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History Miller read a line that said:

“The tribute to Black achievement in American cookery has yet to be written.”

Egerton had a conversation with Miller that would become a turning point in Miller’s professional career.

“I thought that was really interesting, and so I tracked him down,” said Miller. “And I said, ‘Hey, you wrote this 14 years ago. Do you still think this is true? And he said, ‘Yeah. There are people who have addressed parts of it, but there's always room for another voice. So why not yours?’” (Egerton died in 2013.)

Over the next decade, Miller began finding his voice. His interests were immediately directed toward soul food. He realized, to understand soul food, he needed to understand barbecue. He attended symposiums with the Southern Foodways Alliance, began diligently watching barbecue-focused cooking show episodes, and became a certified barbecue judge. The history and legacies of restaurateurs and pitmasters become the core of Miller’s work. In the mid-2000s, he dug into the Food Network’s programming, which featured a show from Paula Deen (before racist revelations dismantled her career) showing “who’s who” in southern barbecue culture. Miller learned a lot, but after watching the piece, he was utterly shocked.

“As the credits were rolling, my mouth was agape because no African Americans had been featured,” he said.

Miller’s food career — which includes the award-winning book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, and The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas — has helped bring underrepresented stories and the history of African Americans in soul food to life. This book is no exception: He introduces us to Black barbecue legends like Charles W. Allen, John Henry “Doc” Hamilton, and Woody Smith, alongside 22 smoky recipes. And he traces the origins of barbecue to the American South, debunking long-standing myths, and reckoning with a truth that disrupted even his original hypothesis.

“The most common [idea] I heard was that Black people invented barbecue. And look, I wanted to confirm that because I wanted to cross my chest with an ‘X’ with my arms and say, ‘Wakanda Forever.’” But, the early history, largely based on European documentation and Black oral history, presented a different conclusion.

“It's Native American in origin, and it gets fused with European cooking techniques, and then African adaptations, to become something with recognizable antecedents. But ultimately [it’s] something different,” said Miller.

Though Black Americans didn’t invent barbecue in the US, their impact on barbecue became almost instantly apparent during American slavery.

“Black cooks become the principal cooks, by the time you get to the 19th century,” Miller said. ‘In fact, newspaper articles written [during this period] say, ‘You’ve got to have a negro man or a colored man do this.’ So we're like part of the recipe.”

In his book, Miller argues that barbecue is scalable. Unlike fried chicken or other meats, historical records show barbecue dinners for 10,000 people. Slave labor allowed for this kind of scalability. Miller also finds that barbecue begins in Virginia, and travels with slavery. Barbecue ends up in West Tennessee, Kentucky, and Carolinas, all these other places, then finds its way to East Texas, Kansas City, and Colorado. 

Because barbecue, especially old school barbecue, is so labor-intensive, enslaved African Americans were often those who did this sort of cooking and trained their descendants to do the work as well. Miller described a laborious process in which Black enslaved people and workers post-slavery were responsible for clearing eating areas of debris so that people could sit down and eat, chopping the wood, starting the fires, killing the animals, processing them, digging the trench, filling that trench with the coals, cooking the meat over that coals, seasoning and saucing it, and serving it and entertaining the people after the barbecue was done. 

“The racial dynamics of that period was, if you're going to have somebody do a lot of work and not compensate them, make enslaved African Americans do it.”

“Enslaved people become barbecue expert cooks, and they emerge from emancipation with this very coveted and marketable skill. They become barbecue’s most effective ambassadors.”

According to Miller, the barbecue styles we’re familiar with today are really about 100 years old and are the result of a shift from rural to urban barbecue. Whole hog was the dominant method of barbecuing (recently repopularized by lauded pitmaster Rodney Scott), but eventually, pitmasters transitioned to smaller cuts of meat. Innovation sparks with this new style of barbecuing, and white men emerge into the pitmaster industry.

“I want people to know that by the time you get to the 19th century, blackness and barbecue are wedded in the public imagination,” said Miller “And it remained that way until the late 1980s, early 1990s.”

He continues. “I argue that this all changed in the ‘90s with the rise of foodies, the first time in our nation's history. You've got a bunch of middle-class people, and people studying food. They're more adventurous than their parents. They've got disposable income enough where they would actually travel for a food experience. So you get a commensurate rise in food media to cater to this group of foodies.”

This group of foodies is largely white. He cites the launch of Food Network in 1993 as just one example of networks trying to tap into this audience, which includes hiring white pitmasters and television personalities and experts. Blackness becomes erased from the American barbecue story.

“The people who were deciding what stories get told, and who are the experts, were not diverse. They didn't value diversity,” he said.

Miller is one of a series of scholars, pitmasters, and historians working to reclaim this narrative. He points to Rodney Scott's World of BBQ: Every Day Is a Good Day, which is the first cookbook by an African American pitmaster in 30 years. It’s one example of the work to recenter African Americans in meat culture.

“We're seeing signs of hope in this industry,” he said.

As Miller travels across the United States eating barbecue and helping to revise false history, most recently in Netflix’s “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America” it’s clear that his work is both timely and essential in telling the full story of American food.

“African Americans have shaped what barbecue has become,” he said, “and I really want people to know that.”


Mashed Potato Salad

Serves: 4

In his book Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, Robb Walsh credits this recipe to the cooks at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. There it’s served with an ice cream scoop. I hadn’t really experienced this type of potato salad before I started eating my way through Texas. Walsh notes that this “soft and fluffy” style of potato salad is common in East Texas. I add some mustard to make it slightly tangy.
— Adrian E. Miller

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds russet potatoes

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

  • 3 teaspoons prepared yellow mustard (optional)

  • 2 green onions, sliced

  • 1 tablespoon pickle relish

  • 4 teaspoons pickle juice

  • 4 teaspoons hot pepper sauce

  • Salt, to taste

Instructions

1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch chunks.

2. Place the potatoes and enough water to cover in a 4-quart saucepan.

3. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.

4. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

5. Drain.

6. In a large bowl, coarsely mash the potatoes.

7. Stir in the remaining ingredients.

8. Serve at room temperature.

Recipe from Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue

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Jason Pough’s Smoked Cabbage

Serves: 8

I discovered righteous ’cue on a military base, of all places. Jason Pough runs Le’Pough’s Barbecue out of Fort Lee, Virginia. His place caters to those on base, so the hours can be limited. Call before you visit, but it’s worth the drive for his ethereal pork spareribs and chopped pork sandwich doused with a mustard sauce. This is a nice riff on braised cabbage, which is a popular side dish in soul food restaurants. Pough suggests using “Slap Yo’ Mama” brand seasoning, but any spicy seasoning mix will do the trick. — Adrian E. Miller

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cup butter

  • 1/4 cup garlic salt

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • 1 head of green or red cabbage

  • Chopped parsley, to taste

Instructions

1. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, and add the garlic, salt, and sugar.

2. Slice the cabbage head in half.

3. Season the cut sides of the cabbage with salt and pepper.

4. Wrap the cabbage in aluminum foil and place it in or on the smoker for approximately 2 hours at 275°F.

5. Once the cabbage is sufficiently soft, remove the foil, cut the cabbage to serving-size pieces, and top with the melted butter. Serve immediately.

Recipe from Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue

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