A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES BEARD AWARD AUTHOR ADRIAN MILLER
today at 5:42 pm
After watching HIGH ON THE HOG the Netflix Original Documentary Series, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with one of the authors featured in the series.
My best friend is a cookbook collector, especially ones that have a historical aspect to them. She was the first to introduce me to the works of Adrian Miller. I was so excited when I got the call to interview him about his new book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.
Adrian, I didn’t realize that James Beard gave awards to authors. I thought it was only for Chefs and restaurants.
Yeah. So, the book I got was for my very first one, so that’s a blessing. And it’s the book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time. And I think I got it because there was never really a treatment of soul food that had happened in that way. There, certainly, have been a number of great soul food cookbooks, but nobody wrote a history of it and explained what the food is, how it got on the soul food plate, and what it means for the culture.
What was it like being a part of the docuseries High on the Hog?
“It was amazing. I feel very fortunate to be on multiple episodes. And quite a few of the people on the series, I’d already known, because we were fellow travelers in the culinary history, food writing world. So, it was great to be on an all-star team with so many other people that I respect. And then I got to meet some new people who are really interesting and doing a lot of interesting work. So, it was a chance to go to different places and just talk about the story of food and its connection to African Americans in those places. And we just have never seen anything like that on TV.
There is one book that I just love the title, the President’s Kitchen Cabinet. I thought that was so genius. And you were actually in the cabinet of Bill Clinton. What was that book about? I can only imagine.
Yeah, so that was a collective biography of African American presidential chefs. And it really came out of the research from my soul food book, because as I was chasing the story of soul food, I came across the stories of a few people who had cooked for our presidents. And I thought, well, this is really interesting. I don’t think anybody has really told their story. And I only had about four or five, maybe six, stories total. So that’s not enough to anchor a book. So, I just thought, well, let me just keep researching and then see where it leads. And in time, I found the stories of 150 African Americans who have cooked for our presidents, from George Washington through the Obamas. I finished the book during the Obama administration.
But even today with President Biden and President Trump administrations, every president has had an African American cooking for them in some capacity, whether it was in the White House, when they traveled, either by train, boat, or airplane, or when they would go to places and stay for a while, usually there was a black cook in the mix. I really was happy to have the opportunity to just tell that story and get that sense of history.
And there is such a code of silence around the White House that we don’t know the full extent to which these culinary professionals affected presidential history and US history. But we get some examples because these cooks gave the Presidents and first families a window on black lives they probably never would have had otherwise. Now, not every President opened up that window to take a peek at the black life, but we have examples of where they did. And I think our nation’s better for it.
Well, that’s one thing that I’ve always wondered about. What is the difference between a cook versus a chef? When we were growing up, folks in the kitchen were the cooks. And now, all of a sudden, everybody’s a chef
Well, so really, the only difference is a Department of Labor classification. Because if you actually go to the root of the word, chef, it’s an old French term for Chef de Cuisine. So it just meant the Head Cook. But today there’s been a layer of professionalism applied to the term chef. So the Department of Labor classification happened in the late seventies. And so now the implication is that you’re not really a chef unless you’ve gone to culinary school or you received some kind of professional training, apprenticeship, whatever. But yeah, back in the day, it was just whoever was running the kitchen, you were called the Chef de Cuisine.
Well, your new book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. Tell me about it.
I would say the book is about two things. One, it is a celebration of African American barbecue culture. But then also importantly, it is a restoration of African Americans to the barbecue narrative. Because if you watch barbecue TV shows, magazine articles, newspaper articles, black people are either marginalized or left out of the story completely. It’s as if we are bit players in the story of barbecue. And any truthful accounting of barbecue history knows that African Americans were central to it. So, it’s a thump on the head to say, look, you guys cannot talk about barbecue without including black people.
Well, that really gets me because I’ve watched some of these barbecue competition shows where the black guy never wins or even shows that go to visit different, great restaurants. And they have this wonderful barbecue restaurant. But they’re never black restaurants. And I’m wondering, well, how is that?
Yeah. Well, so one of the pivotal experiences for my book is 2004, I’m watching Paula Deen’s Southern Barbecue on the Food Network, and it’s an hour-long show about barbecue in the south. And when the credits were rolling an hour later, my mouth was wide open because there were no African Americans on that show. And so like you just said, I asked, well, first of all, how does this happen? And the second thing I wondered is, maybe I got it twisted. Maybe it was Paula Deen’s Scandinavian barbecue, sponsored by Alabama White Sauce.
Guide me through the book. What makes it different from any other Barbeque book?
No, the first part of the book is the early history of barbecue, which is hazy. And so I try to tell people, this is how barbecue came together in Virginia. I picked Virginia as the starting place for Southern barbecue. And I lay out my reasons why. And then I show how African Americans get associated with barbecue, mainly because it was very labor-intensive. And the racial dynamic of our country is if you’ve got hard work that needs to be done, especially if you don’t want to pay the people to do that work, you have enslaved African Americans do it. So enslaved African Americans become the principal barbecue cooks by the 19th century. It’s just well-established that if you want a great barbecue, African Americans are the ones to make it.
And then I look at the culture a little deeper and I say, okay, is there an African American barbecue aesthetic? Is there something that African Americans think about barbecue that’s different than what you get in the mainstream? I think there is. And I point those things out. And I do a whole chapter on the sauce. Because for a lot of people, the sauce is the calling card for a barbecue establishment.
There are great debates on the sauce making the barbecue. In the book, you mention your top 20 barbecue restaurants in the country. Did Chicago make the list?
Of course. So, the one that I picked out in Chicago is called Q’s Tips and Wings. It’s a South Side place. And the reason why I wanted to highlight that place is because they’re doing a lot of turkey barbecue, which is a big trend in African American barbecue. So that’s the place I highlighted, but I love me some Honey 1. I love Sonny’s. Alice’s is good. You’ve got a lot of good places on the South Side and the West Side.
It was great speaking with Adrian Miller. His latest book Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue is an amazing and informative book. The next time I have some barbecue I will have a better understanding of it.
Until next time, keep your EYE to the sky!