Adrian Miller is a food writer, James Beard Award winner, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver. He is featured in the Netflix hit “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.” Miller’s first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the James Beard Foundation Award for Scholarship and Reference in 2014. His second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas was a finalist for a 2018 NAACP Image Award and the 2018 Colorado Book Award for History. He is currently the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches — the first African American and the first layperson to hold that position.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Adrian Miller: I was tired of seeing so much barbecue storytelling in film, print and social media that either relegated African Americans to the margins or left them out entirely. “Black Smoke” is a thump on the head that one can’t accurately talk about barbecue in the United States without including African Americans.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Miller: This excerpt sets that table and explains why the lack of representation of African Americans in barbecue is so troubling. Otherwise, one might think, “What’s the big deal?”
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
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Miller: The main inspiration came from the thousands of oral histories from formerly enslaved people that I read. I got a deeper sense of early barbecue culture in the American South and how African Americans connected to that style of cooking.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Miller: Yes, in many ways! I think the biggest shift (which now is a “Duh!” moment) was the amount of time that I spent focusing on how Indigenous meat smoking traditions formed the foundation for southern barbecue.
I started out believing that I was going to definitively prove that southern barbecue is rooted in West Africa, but the historical evidence points to culinary practices in the Americas.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Miller: I’ve been truly surprised by how readily white people have accepted my book’s message. I thought there would be a lot more resistance to the call for more representation. Yet, I’ve received so many positive messages thanking me for such a well-written, well-researched look at barbecue culture. I gave many readers an eye-opening look at history.
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SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Miller: The biggest, ongoing controversy that I’ve faced is the reactions from both Black people and white people to my conclusion that southern barbecue has a Native American foundation. Black critics argue that since African Americans dominated barbecue for a couple of centuries, the culinary practice must be West African in origin.
White critics argue that there’s nothing exceptional about barbecue. People around the world cook meat over fire, and it was certainly done in Europe for thousands of years. Both groups of critics have the same fundamental challenge: No one talks about barbecue, in fact, the word didn’t even exist, until Europeans got to the Americas in the late 15th century.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Miller: I don’t have a set writing process since I’m doing this as a side hustle. So, I write whenever I can find the time. My typical approach is, after extensive research, I create an outline for the flow of a particular chapter. I share the outline with some experts in the field to make sure that I didn’t miss something obvious.
After getting their feedback, I figure out the major themes that I’m going to hit and the important points and compelling stories that I want to share. Then I write a very rough draft to make a first attempt at flow. After that, it’s an extensive amount of honing, moving things around, and infusing humor so that I can get the greatest storytelling impact.
SunLit: Do you have a Colorado connection in your book?
Miller: At the end of each chapter, I profile barbecue cooks who evoke the themes of the chapter. Two notable people from Colorado I write about are Columbus B. Hill and “Daddy” Bruce Randolph, Sr.
Hill is in the chapter about the African American barbecue cooks who were barbecue’s most effective ambassadors. Hill came to Colorado in the late 1870s and regularly oversaw barbecues for thousands of people. Randolph is in the chapter about barbecue and church culture.
Even though Randolph was not ordained as a pastor, he lived out his faith. In particular, his tradition of having free meals for Thanksgiving garnered him a national reputation.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Miller: I’m excited to tell the story of African American street vendors because they did so much to shape the food scenes of great cities like Charleston, South Carolina, Chicago, Illinois, New Orleans, Louisiana, New York, New York, and Savannah, Georgia. I’ll share the ways these vendors represented West Africa through their dress, their streets, and the foods that they introduced.