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Food historian and James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller calls himself “The Soul Food Scholar” for good reason. Many years of research into African American food routes have resulted in two books – Soul Food: The Surprising Tale of an American Kitchen, Plate by Plate, and The President’s Kitchen Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Fed our First Families, the Washingtons to the Obamas – with a third, tentatively titled Black Smoke, in progress.
Miller’s latest endeavor is to explore the Afro-American roots of grilling and its ongoing contribution to the distinctly American style of cooking. But despite Miller’s accumulated knowledge and expertise in the field, he realized that there was at least part of the barbecue menu that he had never visited: eastern North Carolina. Fortunately, he had connections to take him to his ultimate research goal – and get him a TV commercial in the process.
Chef Vivian Howard runs restaurants in North Carolina and has her own show on PBS called Somewhere South. “Vivian is known to people who are fans of their restaurants,” notes Miller, “and the producers contacted me because they heard about my upcoming book. I met her previously through the Southern Foodways Alliance.”
And so Miller stood in front of the camera in January when Howard tried a grill – especially a grill made with whole pigs – in several well-known smokehouses in small towns off the beaten path. “I flew to Raleigh-Durham and then got in a car. You have to go to these places because they’re not near major airports,” he explains. “One of the underlying premises of the episode is, ‘Let’s take this national barbecue expert and show him what we’re doing here in North Carolina.'”
His destinations included Sid’s Catering, a grill restaurant in Beulaville (more than 100 miles from Raleigh-Durham) that is only open on Saturdays. “There are very few people who cook with wood and there are fewer people who make whole pigs,” notes Miller. “Grilling with whole pigs is a serious art, and many of them are about brand management.”
Miller was surprised by the subtle vinegar and smoke from Sid’s pork. Most of Denver’s “Carolina-style” grills have heavily smoked pork shoulder and too much mustard and vinegar, he points out, but “When grilling in North Carolina, the smoke is pretty subtle because they’re cooking quite a bit over already burned coals down. “
In Miller’s episode of Somewhere South, viewers share a mouthful of meat and cracked skin straight from the barbecue pit. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten,” recalls Miller, noting that another Eastern North Carolina style distinction is that all of the different cuts of pork are minced and mixed to create the perfect meat balance and reach fat and skin.
Sam Jones (left) shows Adrian Miller and Vivian Howard the BBQ areas at the Skylight Inn.
Courtesy Somewhere South
The show also took Miller to the Skylight Inn in Ayden, where owner Sam Jones attributes the town’s grilling skills to Skilton Dennis, who sold smoked meat from a cart in the 1830s. “There’s a nice staccato when the guy chops the meat over there,” says Miller. (This “guy” is called a chopper, as the show reveals.) “In terms of texture, the meat itself is very juicy, almost like steamed meat, but then it has crispy pieces of skin that are minced and mixed in, giving them different textures and Flavors. “
On one final stop, Miller and Howard enjoyed a rare treat at Boogie’s Turkey BBQ in Elm City, where the turkey is smoked, chopped, and served using the same techniques as whole pork grilling, including mixing in the chopped skin. Miller says grilling turkey is a growing trend among African Americans looking for a healthier alternative to pork, and he even found smoked turkey “ribs” made from the bird’s shoulder blade for it to cook and eat like a pork rib rib .
With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting the economy and closing restaurants across the country, Miller is concerned about preserving the skills and knowledge of mine workers in regions like eastern North Carolina. “The culinary heritage, the heritage of the community – so much of it could be lost,” he says. But he is also hopeful because “many barbecues, especially those of blacks, are well prepared to take away”.
Vivian Howard starred in five seasons of A Chef’s Life before releasing Somewhere South that season. Check out Miller’s episode on Friday, May 1st at 8pm on Rocky Mountain PBS.
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Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He began eating and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard and continues to cover the diverse international food scene on Metro Denver and the city’s rapidly changing dining landscape. Mark was recognized as an Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2018.