When I spoke with Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller, our discussion began with an all too familiar conversation–commiserating over a shared experience in the legal field. He describes himself as a recovering lawyer, which I feel is an apt title for myself…even though I haven’t even graduated from law school yet.
All jokes aside, it was wonderful to speak with Miller. He served in the Clinton White House during his legal tenure, and has gone on to an interesting career as a food scholar and BBQ judge. It is great to see a lawyer with a love for Black food culture. It showed me that there is no tension in my own existence, as I myself am an aspiring attorney who also loves blogging at The Diasporic Dish.
Adrian Miller has written three distinguished tomes on African-American culinary history. His first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship and was a Black Caucus of the American Library Association non-fiction honor book. I enjoyed reading about the evolution of soul food dishes through different eras, from West Africa to slavery to the present day; the cuisine’s transformation as Black people moved across the country during the Great Migration was particularly intriguing.
It explained so much about how soul food became what we know it as today, which largely consists of the celebratory food that enslaved people only enjoyed on special occasions. I also loved the unique way in which Miller organized the book, tackling soul food item by item: fried chicken, catfish, chitlins, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, greens, candied yams, cornbread, hot sauce, red drink, and desserts. Man, now I’m hungry. I definitely recommend picking the book up, as it debunks long standing myths and affirms soul food’s place as a storied cuisine.
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 nominated for the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work–Nonfiction. This was yet another interesting read, as I learned so much about not only the pivotal role Black people played in the White House, but also the integral workings of the presidential kitchen through the ages. One thing that stuck out to me is that there has been a perpetual tension in the White House between the down home cooking associated with Black people and Southerners, and the “classic” French cuisine that is often seen as elevated and avant garde. This phenomenon seems to play out generally in the food world, from what is considered fine dining to who are deemed talented chefs.
Just last month, Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller released his third book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. As he did while researching his soul food book, Miller ate at restaurants across the country to inform his BBQ scholarship. This sounds like my type of gig. Mr. Miller, please let me know when you are writing the next book! I am happy to help.
An Interview with Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller
Sharila Stewart [SS]: Hello Adrian! Thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you being here. Can you start off by just telling us a little about yourself?
Adrian Miller [AM]: Of course. I’m Adrian Miller. I was born and raised in the Denver metro area in Colorado, which immediately loses me all street cred on the subject of soul food and barbecue. But the way I win people back is my parents are from the South. My mom’s from Chattanooga, Tennessee and my dad’s from Helena, Arkansas. So these are my food traditions.
SS: [Laughs.] Yeah you do have your cred back.
AM: [Laughs.] So I went to Stanford University for undergrad, and then I went to Georgetown Law School. Then I came back to Denver and practiced law for about four years. I hated it. It got to the point where I was singing spirituals in my office, so I figured I should do something else. I was going to open up a soul food restaurant, but then I got a chance to work in the Clinton White House. I worked on something called the Initiative for One America, which was about racial, ethnic, and religious reconciliation. After that, I came back to Denver and I worked at a think tank for a little while. Then I decided to write this book on the history of soul food. We’ll get to that in a second. The food stuff is fun, but it’s not lucrative. So my day job is mostly a part time job where I work for the Colorado Council of Churches. I’m the executive director of that organization, [which] gets churches together to build relationships and do social justice work.
SS: Very interesting. So with the work you do with the churches, does that also include food? I know that a lot of time that’s what you can gather around [to create community].
AM: Yes. Some of our biggest events have been around food. One of the things I’m trying to do is [create] more partnership between Black and white churches. I’m finding food is the best way to do that, but it’s hard to maintain momentum on these racial reconciliation things. A lot of people just want kind of a quick fix, but given the challenges we have in our society, this is stuff that is going to take a while to break through.
SS: That is definitely understandable, but I’m glad you are doing that work because it is very important. So going back a bit, you talk about how you began your career as a lawyer. You worked for the Clinton Administration as a special assistant and you were also a policy analyst for the Colorado Governor, so you had a lot of time in that realm. What got you into food in the first place? Were you always into cooking? When did you think, ok, I’m going to write a book about soul food?
AM: Growing up, my mom worked nights. So when she came home in the mornings, she was just too tired to make breakfast for me, my twin sister and my little brother. All of us are around the same age–I have two older brothers–and so we had to cook for ourselves. Now look, it was not glamorous stuff. It was Maypo [instant oatmeal], Malt O’ Meal, Cream of Wheat, pancakes, scrambled eggs with eggshells. It was that kind of stuff.
But then, as I got older, I tried to make different things just to give my mom a break on the weekends. So I always had an interest in cooking. It got more intense my third year of law school. I was blessed enough to have a couple job offers, so I kind of eased back a little bit. I started watching these cooking shows because back then the Discovery Channel and a couple of other channels actually had more regular cooking shows. But the short answer of how I got into this is unemployment. I was trying to get back to Colorado after the Clinton Administration, but the job market was really slow. I was watching a lot of daytime television. I’m not even going to tell you which shows. And I said [to myself], you know, I should read something.
Adrian Miller on Becoming the Soul Food Scholar
AM: So I went to the bookstore. Because I was interested in cooking, I was browsing the cookbook section. I saw this book on the history of southern food by this guy named John Egerton. It was called Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. And so I picked that book up, and [Egerton] wrote that the tribute to Black achievement in American cookery had yet to be written. And I thought, oh that’s interesting. I thought someone had done it, because the book was about twelve years old when i picked it up. I emailed him and he said, you know what, no one’s really done it yet. So that’s what’s really launched the journey.
SS: You decided you were going to be the one that added to that scholarly work. I think that’s incredibly important. Since entering the food world, you have been dubbed the Soul Food Scholar, so you definitely picked up that baton. Before we talk about the book that you wrote, how do you define soul food, or even just Black food in general? How do you even tackle a project like that?
AM: Right. So, going into the project I thought it was going to be much more discreet than probably what I had heard. All you hear is that soul food is the food that white people didn’t want. It’s the food that we took certain ingredients and made it delicious. All that kind of stuff. As I delved into it, I was like, no. This is a much more rich and complex story. It’s a bringing together of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas. So I tell people that soul food is one of the African heritage cuisines in the United States, because I think Creole food, and Lowcountry food of Charleston and Savannah is different. I think southern food is different as well.
There’s a lot of overlap on all of these, but I think soul food is something distinct. It’s really the food of the American South that Black migrants took to other parts of the country, and so it gets transplanted, substitutions have to be found. The menu gets limited because they are just not in the same place that they once were. And you get interaction with new ethnic groups, new neighbors. And so that comes together and informs its own thing. A lot of people ask me, what’s the difference between southern food and soul food? I say soul food tastes different.
SS: [Laughs.] You’re accurate on that. I like the idea of Black food, especially in America, having multiple different cuisines, being multilayered because there is a difference between those cuisines. It’s important to break those down. I think it was before you wrote the book that you were working at Southern Foodways Alliance?
AM: Yes, I wasn’t on staff but I was on the board. One of my roles was that I helped plan the annual symposium. It’s really fascinating. They key in on one subject, one theme, and the idea is that the symposium brings together thought leaders, scholars, chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, all of these people, and they talk about different subjects that connect to that theme. That was a lot of fun. I did that for, I guess 6 years, something like that.
SS: Yes. I know that was from 2004 to 2010. I know now that we are in 2021, there’s been a lot of reckoning about who speaks about soul food, who’s represented. For you personally, what do you see there? Do you think there’s enough representation of Black people writing about soul food, about these things on a national platform like the one you have? Do you think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and how can that be accomplished?
AM: Well, It’s certainly better than when I started ten years ago. There were only maybe two to three other people who were regularly writing about soul food who weren’t food editors for a newspaper. I’m just talking about people who were doing freelance writing and other things, writing books. Now it just seems like there’s a lot more, but there is always more that can be done. If you look at the sheer amount of things that are being published right now, how much actually speaks to African-American food? I would say a small proportion. And very little about Africa. My hope is that in the near future we are going to see more Black writers talking about these food traditions. And the other thing that’s cool is that right now is probably the easiest time to create content and there are a lot of platforms. The struggle is, given your place in life, is just being compensated for your content. It’s really easy to put content out there. There’s only a few people that can do that without being supported. We want to get to a point where people are supported for the content they create. That just makes things a lot easier.
SS: It’s definitely important, especially given the wealth disparities. It definitely makes it harder for Black ppl to do that without being compensated. But for you personally, you have done great work with bringing these African-American food heritages to the forefront. You’ve written three books now. The first one you published was Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, for which you won a James Beard Award, so that’s amazing. Then you went on to follow that up with The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas, really talking about all these African-American chefs who worked in the White House.
Black Smoke and The History of African-American BBQ
SS: And now, you’re releasing your third book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, on April 12. You did a lot of research for this barbecue book. I know that you are a BBQ judge in Denver, that you did a traveling tour tasting BBQ all over the country, which sounds amazing. Can you talk about Black Smoke, how you got into barbecue, and what you want to accomplish with this book?
Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller: Well I wrote Black Smoke because I’m just tired of white dudes getting all of the credit when it comes to BBQ. If you look at BBQ media, how much African-American representation is there? Which is crazy, because anybody with any exposure to Black culture knows that BBQ is a huge part of our food culture and that there’s a ton of people barbecuing all across the country. But the big problem is, when it comes to food media, the people who decide what stories get to be told tend to be white. And if they don’t value diversity, only white people are presented as experts or authority in certain food subjects.
Black Smoke is part celebration because we want to give these cooks their just due. There’ve been a lot of good books that have talked about African-American barbecuers, so I wanted to make sure that we had a book by an African-American looking at the culture and celebrating its gloriousness. But it’s also a restoration, a reminder that if you are going to talk about BBQ in the U.S., you cannot adequately and completely tell that story without including African-Americans. That’s why I endeavored to write this book.
When I wrote the book, I would say that the food media about BBQ was not diverse, but I think there’s been signs of improvement very recently. I’ll give you two examples. In the cookbook realm, Rodney Scott and Kevin Bludso have books on the way. We haven’t had a BBQ book by an African-American in twenty-five years, and we haven’t had a book by an African-American restaurateur in BBQ in thirty years. Think about all the books on BBQ that come out every single year, so why is that?
AM: Another example, and I talk about this in my books, is the Barbecue Hall of Fame [in Kansas City]. When I first noticed it, it had thirty inductees and only one of them was African-American. I criticized them in the local paper, and to their credit, they invited me on the board. So I’m pleased to say that the last two classes have had African-Americans, including the first African-American woman, Desiree Robinson of Cozy Corner Restaurant in Memphis. There’s still a lot of work to do, but there’s improvement. But there are so many people that need to be celebrated.
SS: What I just love is that everytime you see a gap, you are like, okay, I’m going to be the one who goes in and shakes things up and fixes it. That’s excellent, putting that action in to get that representation out there. I recently seen the Rodney Scott episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix, which was one of the first times I’d seen him. It’s amazing and I’m looking forward to all of these cookbooks to cook through and review.
AM: On Chef’s Table, were you playing close attention to the credits? Did you notice a name in the credits?
SS: [Laughs.] No, was your name in the credits?
AM: [Laughs.] Yes.
SS: No, I will say, I did not look at the credits. You consulted on the show?
AM: I did.
SS: Oh wow, that’s really amazing. Can you talk about the part that you played?
AM: Early on, when they were conceiving of what the show would be like, I spent 2 hours total with the producers, just talking through what I saw as the current issues of bbq. Much like what we just discussed: why I see there’s historical misrepresentation of BBQ. They were very receptive. There was a little bit of talk of me getting on camera, but I was left at the altar, so that never happened.
SS: Well I’m sorry you didn’t get your debut, but at least like you said, they had their ear to the ground of people who are doing this work. So that’s excellent, and when I watch it again, I’ll definitely look for you.
AM: [Laughs.] I was just messing with you. I didn’t expect you to watch all the credits.
SS: [Laughs.] It’s all good. Speaking of what’s been coming out recently, you actually first caught my eye because of your feature in [Marcus Samuelsson’s cookbook] The Rise.You inspire three dishes in the book: 1) Andouille and Callaloo Hand Pies; 2) Grit Cakes; 3) Rainbow Trout with Slab Bacon. What did you think about your feature and how do these dishes relate to the food you study?
AM: It was cool to be included because I can’t say that I get shine all the time. Marcus Samuelsson is definitely one of the leading culinary figures in our country, so when he does something it’s going to draw attention. Just to be included with those chefs is great. It’s a sense of validation. Maybe you’ll understand this, but I had to drink a lot of haterade over the course of my writing career from others who said, oh this is interesting, but it doesn’t fit our portfolio, or it’s not part of our catalog. That’s what I heard from literary agents, publishers and editors. Others would say, oh there’s already enough soul food books on the market, even though there hadn’t been one in twenty years.
SS: That’s still enough though, right.
AM: Yeah. Or it’s interesting but nobody’s going to read this. Or, you don’t have enough game to write a book. It’s interesting that we’re talking today because I just got news that my Soul Food book is going into its eighth printing.
SS: Congratulations! There’s definitely a lot of people who want to see what you wrote. I’m excited to read the book, so that’s amazing.
AM: Thank you. The inspiration for the recipes [in The Rise], some surprised me. The rainbow trout really speaks to my Colorado upbringing, so that makes sense. It was just great to be included.
Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller Talks His Favorite Food Cities
SS: That makes sense. That’s a question I wanted to ask. I know you started off talking about how you’re from Colorado and writing about soul food. What is the soul food scene like in Colorado?
AM: Oh it’s thriving. It’s the heartbeat of the national soul food scene, you didn’t know that? I’m just kidding. [Laughs.]
SS: [Laughs.] I was like, I didn’t know that, maybe I need to do more research.
AM: COVID has really thrown a wrench into it. Our soul food scene is not what it once was because our historically Black neighborhood has seriously gentrified over the last fifteen years, so a lot of these restaurants have just disappeared. And then there is also generational change. I’ve noticed that, not only in Denver, but across the country, a lot of times, the kids of the people who have started some of the classic restaurants are not interested in being part of it.
I’m sad that this happens, but I can’t fault them because running a restaurant is hard, it’s not easy doing that. And so a lot of places have closed. In fact, we lost a really great Black-run restaurant here because of COVID. Just the dropoff. If you are in a prime real estate location and you can’t get foot traffic and people staying a while and ordering more drinks, you are going to be hemorrhaging cash. So a lot of places have closed. We only have a few spots right now. There’s still places to go, and in fact, if you have an Apple phone, I wrote a guide to Black-owned restaurants in Denver in Apple Maps, so you can just go Soul Food Scholar, Apple Maps.
SS: Excellent! I will definitely include that link. Denver is always a place I’ve wanted to visit, to go to ski lounges and such. I’d love to participate in that scene. You clearly know a lot about food. You wrote a map about the Denver soul food scene, but how is food like for you at home? You’re interested in food, but do you cook?
AM: Yeah, I got skills.
SS: [Laughs.] Ok, ok.
AM: [Laughs.] It’s really interesting right now. Because of the pandemic, I’m eating far more takeout than I ever did, because I’m trying to support restaurants. A lot of times before that it was just broiled fish and a salad. That was a typical meal. Every once in a while I’ll make soul food. When it comes to making soul food, I like making mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey, black eyed peas with some ham hock and some cornbread. That’s a great meal to me. I’m much more into fried fish than say chicken. I’ll certainly eat chicken but I love bone-in, whole catfish. I just love it.
SS: Yes, especially whole fish. The flavor is just on a different level. That sounds amazing. What would you say then is your favorite food destination, somewhere you could just eat your way through?
AM: In terms of a city?
SS: A city. A country.
AM: In terms of just having it all, I’d have to say I had the most fun in the Bay Area. San Francisco and Oakland… just amazing food. I’m just going off the sheer variety. Of course, there’s always New York. New Orleans is also a great place. But I gotta tell you, Houston is a serious eating town, and if you’ve not been there yet…
SS: I have. I had some of their BBQ.
AM: Where did you get your BBQ? I’m curious.
SS: It’s been a couple years now, but it was a Black-owned spot.
AM: Burns [Original BBQ] or Ray’s [BBQ Shack]?
SS: Ray’s. It was Ray’s.
AM: Burns and Ray’s. In my Black Smoke book I list my twenty top places and those two places are in there.
SS: It was so warm. You felt like you were walking in to family. I’m from California originally, and I was like, we don’t have this type of feel. I loved it so much.
AM: I went there on a Thursday afternoon I think. It was packed, which you would not expect. I thought it was going to be a downtime.
SS: Definitely! It has a lively feel. I really enjoyed it. I can’t wait to get back to Houston.
Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller Talks the Future of the Culinary World
SS: Speaking of these different chefs and restaurants doing big things, who would you say you admire in the food world, or people you’ve seen making moves that you are really appreciating right now?
AM: There’s a lot of people. You’ve got Edouardo Jordan in Seattle not only running the top restaurants, but he has an educational website with a glossary just so people can get more of an understanding of the cuisine. He’s got a clothing line. He’s doing jams and other kinds of stuff. He’s really diversifying. He’s making the most out of this moment after getting such a huge spotlight with the double James Beard Award win.
I like what Rodney Scott is doing in BBQ. He’s got a chance to really blow it up big, in the way that so many of his white counterparts have. I do wonder how much people are going to be feeling whole hog cooking, but we’ll have to see. What Mashama Bailey is doing in Savannah with the Port City cooking and winning the James Beard. I don’t mean to say that winning a James Beard is validation completely. I don’t want to say that, but it’s noteworthy and I think it should be celebrated. I like what Todd Richards is doing. His Soul [A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes] cookbook is beautiful. I think about Toni Tipton-Martin and what she’s doing now running America’s Test Kitchen. We have to do what we can to support.
I just want to say this public service announcement. My experience has been, and I’m speaking for myself, but I know other Black authors and restaurateurs have experienced this. A lot of my support comes from white people. If you look at my following, who buys my books, who shows up to my book events, it’s majority white people. And so, my message to people of color is look–it’s one thing to criticize, rightfully, all of these other media outlets and restaurants and all these things that aren’t respecting diversity, but when they make a change and they start putting Black creatives out in front of you, you have to support us.
You have to understand that most of these people are running a business. If they put us out there and our books don’t sell, or you’re not clicking on our social media, they’ll be like see. Y’all are telling us all of this stuff but nobody is supporting it. You have to show up for people. Please buy people’s books, please go to their restaurants, order if they’re creating stuff. If you have the resources, just support people. The easiest thing is social media. It does not cost you anything except a little bit of time to like somebody’s [post], retweet, repost, or whatever. That’s the coin of the realm right now.
Think about the young woman, the poet Amanda Gorman. Because of that moment [at President Biden’s inauguration], she went from 50,000 supporters to a million. Do you know what a million plus, she’s probably at two million now. Do you know what kind of leverage that gives her to do other stuff and help others? And one last thing. My Instagram following tripled because Samin Nosrat, who does Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, she just said hey, support Adrian. She had a half million followers at that time. She tripled my following just by doing that. I’m sorry to hijack. I just had to say that.
SS: Please, this is not a hijack. I think this is incredibly important. It’s one thing to critique and another thing to support what’s out there. There’s a lot of people making moves. I think it’s an amazing thing. Support, support, support. One way to support of course is to buy your new book, Black Smoke. I can’t wait to help get the word out. Just to wrap up, what legacy do you want to leave on the culinary world?
AM: I hope my books are an appetizer. I say that because I hope people will take my work and build upon it. I think it’s very solid work. I work hard to prove everything I say. But you know, I have only a certain amount of information. As an author, you take what’s available and you try to write the best book you can. Down the road, there’s going to be more information available because more and more stuff is being digitized. People may say, oh, Adrian didn’t know about this or maybe he missed this, and add that. I just hope people think of me as a curious guy with an appetite who wrote appetizing books that shared our culture and maybe found ways to connect us through food.
SS: I love that. I think you’re definitely achieving that. I know Black Smoke is coming out. Are there any other projects that you want to amplify or share that are coming up?
AM: They’re not ready for primetime yet, but I’m thinking of a food-based dining guide for difficult conversations. I call it The Welcome Table, that’s the working table. So how do we bring people together to talk about difficult conversations? I’m thinking about a book on the history of Black Colorado, which is actually quite fascinating. I think the last food book I want to write is on the history of Black street vendors and how they built the food scenes of some very vital cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, New York, and really helped shape the food scenes of those cities.
SS: Wow, that sounds amazing. I feel like when I think about street vendors I don’t think about Black people, and so that sounds great. I’m excited. I need to get all your books and dive in soon. I wish you much success with everything you have going on. I hope this new book is a huge hit. Congratulations again on getting a reprint of Soul Food. I’m excited to let you know what I think about the books. Thank you again for joining me Adrian, I really appreciate it!
Follow Adrian Miller for updates @soulfoodscholar.
For more chef interviews, check out my conversations with Top Chef alum Chef Roscoe Hall and restaurateur Chef Pierre Thiam.
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