In his new book Black Smoke, local soul food historian Adrian Miller aims to whitewash the American grill. He does this by creating an inclusive narrative based on the massive and underrepresented contributions from black chefs and pitmasters that have been going on since day one. With a series of recent essays, vignettes on some of the forgotten heroes of the kitchen, and a collection of 22 recipes, Miller traces the development of arguably the country’s most revered food tradition.
The title continues and perhaps expands on what it introduces in its first two books – Soul Food and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet – by exploring people and avenues that have either been overlooked or purposely excluded from the mainstream. It’s intended – and certainly reads – as both a restoration and a celebration, with Miller’s light-hearted prose helping to transform delicate subjects into exquisite food for thought. His writing is clearly designed to open discussion – controversial claims are boldly presented in the spirit of sympathetic debate. “I think if people feel seen, this could be the start of a deeper conversation. I’ve always seen my books as a starter, ”grinned the author.
With a first release on April 27th Miller brought out the book with a number of local “Meat and Eats” – signatures lasting several hours next to local eateries where recipes are served straight from the text. He’s already shown up on GQue, appeared at Barbosa’s Barbecue for burnt ends of pork belly, showed up at the Rolling Smoke BBQ making a grilled lamb chop, and landed his latest show at Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que in Golden. “It’s been a very impressive start,” said Miller, noting that early numbers put Black Smoke at # 1 on the Amazon sections for both barbecue and grilling and gastronomic history. An upcoming barbecue brunch is scheduled for this Sunday at Hank’s Texas Barbecue.
In addition to writing two authoritative titles in the world of food science, Miller was most recently seen in Netflix’s acclaimed 2021 series “High on the Hog” and in advice on “Chef’s Table BBQ”. He was also busy editing a collection of barbecue essays for a July publication on Allrecipes, working on the July issue of Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy magazine, and preparing for a number of June 19 speaking dates at the two local boomers before Leading Change and Harvard.
The book succeeds in telling these stories elegantly and exhaustively both during restoration – for a food media narrative that has grossly neglected black stories – and during partying. “It’s aimed at the mainstream reader, with the evidence for those looking to take a deeper dive,” Miller said. The author includes both a 30-page index of primary and secondary sources as well as a list of his favorite barbecue spots from the nearly 200 places he has visited for the sake of research.
Regarding restoration, Miller’s main claim is that the press has disproportionately favored white celebrities until recent years, despite the apparent excellence that reigns among pitmasters of every race. “All of this was driven by the rise of foodies,” he said, noting that as the public kitchen has soared, most outlets have focused on a burgeoning herd of young white champions. “There was a general feeling among the black pitmasters that they had the short end of the stick,” Miller said. He also cites the recently published Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ as one of the most blatant examples of how sparse the account was, noting that it is the first book in 30 years to be published with great success by a black Pitmaster.
To fix the problem, Black Smoke talks almost entirely about Black Pitmasters and presents evidence that is both unique and corrective. It doesn’t tell the full story and never pretends to be. This book is about serving what has been left out.
Originally planned as a series of profiles, the chapters are instead structured according to topic, with both historical – the role of the grill in church culture, entrepreneurship and competition – and gastronomic – “the primacy of sauce” – being substantiated by short biographies are sometimes a little awkwardly smashed in the middle of a section.
In this book, Miller’s book is a truly delightful commemoration of centuries of black talent, dating back to the early interactions with Native Americans – as it portrays as the real foundations of American style. Many of his subjects arranged events that served tens of thousands of people, often with no or limited fanfare, with racist overtones. These characters are indeed models of the keyword, pillars of a tradition that, at best, is one of the greatest symbols of unity and joy that has ever surfaced on Western soil.
Black Smoke also appears to be on a positive upswing, with Miller highlighting Scott’s book and some of the latest groups of newcomers to the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame as a good sign that the story is getting a little wider.
While Miller is currently deeply rooted in the world of smoked meat and gravy, He says he still has three books up his sleeve – A dinner guide for difficult situations could arrive as early as late summer or early fall 2021, with a text about African Americans in early Colorado and a text about African American street vendors landing before 2026. If food is a means of discussing everything under In the Sun, Miller has done a good job summarizing both the ugliest truths of this land and its most singular triumphs in a way that encourages everything to bog down, be it disgusting or not delicious. “There’s plenty of cooking space for everyone,” he smiled.
All of Miller’s books, including Black Smoke, are available to purchase direct from his website. It’s also available locally at Tattered Cover and BookBar.
Miller’s “Meat and Eats” series will host their next event on Sunday, May 23rd, from 1pm to 4pm at Hank’s Texas Barbecue at 5410 East Colfax Ave., Denver
You can find information on other upcoming appearances on his Instagram.
All photographs by Kori Hazel.