Food historian Adrian Miller won a 2014 James Beard Award for his first book, Soul Food: the astonishing story of American cuisine, one plate at a time (2013). He followed this up with The president’s kitchen cabinet in 2017, exploring the history of African-American leaders in the White House. Miller says the reason he wrote his third book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States BBQ, slated for release on April 27, is the same as its first two efforts: “The people who decide what stories to tell are white – and they get recommendations on what stories to tell from other white people.” . . ”
This leads to a much narrower range in the history of food in the United States and the evolution of certain foods and dishes, he points out. Black smoke tells the story of the importance of African Americans in the birth and evolution of barbecue: cooking meat at low heat over charcoal in a way distinct from other forms of outdoor cooking.
“I saw that African Americans had been pushed so far outside the barbecue that they were in danger of disappearing,” Miller continues. “The book is consistent with my other books in that it tells a hidden story or a forgotten story.”
Miller began to think about writing Black smoke after watching TV shows and reports on the barbecue. He recalls a Fox News article on the ‘who’s who barbecue’ in 2015 – in which all fifteen people mentioned were white. And then there was the coverage of the Royal American BBQ Hall of Fame, which between 2011 and 2018 only named one black chef among its many inductees. âI have to explain why black people are so important to the barbecue,â he explains. “I’m not saying black people exclusively own a barbecue, but we were instrumental in its history.”
The book, published by the University of North Carolina Press, is “part celebration and part restoration,” said the author. To gather material, Miller delved into history books and forgotten stories from the early days of the barbecue, dating back to when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Western Hemisphere – and has quickly stolen and devoured unattended cooked meat on a wooden tray. setting over an open fire. This story, he notes, is commonly used as one of the earliest references to barbecue, but it wasn’t until African Americans, Native Americans, and European Americans gathered in Virginia that the smoking – or what we now recognize as barbecue – has come into existence, he notes. By the late 1700s, however, barbecue had become a distinctive American style of cooking.
From there, Miller follows this meaty story to today’s pit masters; his visits to restaurants, trailers, and takeaways across the country exemplify the spread of African American cuisine, Rodney Scott’s whole pork barbecues (which almost single-handedly breathes new life into style by opening restaurants all over the south) at the Southside Chicago barbecue with chunky ribs, hot ties and fries on the side.
Colorado has also had its share of famous African Americans barbecuing. Miller pays homage to dad Bruce Randolph, as well as Columbus B. Hill, who hosted huge barbecue festivals for thousands of guests at a time in the 1880s. Miller discovered Hill’s unmarked grave in the cemetery Riverside in Denver, and he’s planning a fundraiser to put a gravestone there.
The book also covers new trends, such as the spread of barbecued turkey as a healthier alternative to pork. You can find ground turkey in the Carolinas, pulled turkey in Memphis, and turkey ties and ribs in Chicago, Miller notes.
The long-cooked brisket may be the star of Central Texas barbecue, but Miller found that African Americans were doing a slightly different style in Houston, where Creole-influenced sides, the sausage boudain (a regional spelling of blood sausage) and minced breast rather than sliced ââdominate. And in Chandler, Arizona, he found a sixth-generation barbecue in western Tennessee that tells stories of his family smoking meat, some of whom were slaves before the Civil War.
Despite racial tensions and racism in areas where the barbecue has taken place, Miller sees food as a way for people to put their differences aside – and still do. âPeople got together easily around a barbecue,â he says. “You could be in a white-owned place with a constant flow of black customers.” But he also points out that many restaurants had dining areas for white customers and take out windows on the side for black customers.
However, some of those take-out businesses – even after segregation – may have been the saving grace of black-owned barbecue businesses over the past year or so. Miller was finishing his book when the pandemic started, and all of his restaurant visits were over, so he watched impatiently to see who would stay open. âIn a lot of black restaurants, their main activity was take out,â he notes. “I thought the book was going to be an elegy, but that’s just changing a bit. I see more food trucks, more siblings on the side of the road, more social media savvy.”
Ultimately, Black smoke look with hope to the future. âFoodies – middle-class people fascinated with food, more adventurous than their parents, and with higher disposable incomeâ – may have gotten their information about the white-dominated barbecue from the media, but Miller s now ensures that African-American stories are broadcast. also said, for barbecue lovers to know all the colorful truth.
Black smoke is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be available at Tattered Cover and other Denver bookstores starting April 27.