Adrian Miller’s “Black Smoke” Gives African American BBQ Pitmasters Their Due

Adrian Miller at Boney’s Smokehouse. (Paul Miller)

When Adrian Miller was writing his first, award-winning book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time,” he originally planned to include a chapter on barbecue.

In soul food restaurants, barbecued pork is often an option among entrees of oxtails, catfish and fried chicken. And even if the meat has technically been baked and varnished with a sweet tomato glaze rather than smoked over indirect heat, Miller considered barbecue to be as part of the lexicon.

The more he researched and ate, though, he realized the subject of African American barbecue demanded a book of its own. His resolve was steeled after watching a Paula Deen special on the Food Network in 2004. It was dedicated to barbecue, but it didn’t spotlight a single Black expert. As Miller writes in the introduction of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” “I saw shots of Black people in the background doing the actual work, but they were anonymous and voiceless. … I recall thinking, as I turned off the television, ‘Is this what Black barbecuers have become? They’re just B-roll footage now?’ ”

Miller’s writing style is warm and fast-flowing and sometimes flecked with humor; scholarship anchors all of his work, and there were centuries of mythology, erasure and shifting public tastes to untangle.

(Miller, who refers to himself as a “recovering attorney,” served in the White House as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton with his Initiative for One America. Miller’s second book was “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas.” You might have seen him recently on Netflix’s “High On The Hog,” talking about chefs Hercules and James Hemings with host Stephen Satterfield.)

Barbecue, as destination dining and obsessives’ hobby, has ascended to pop culture status in the last 20 years, so the arrival of “Black Smoke” couldn’t be timelier. Chapters address the topic from prismatic angles: Native American foundations to the techniques that became known as barbecue; the nuanced, often-fraught narratives of African Americans identified as barbecue specialists, beginning with enslaved Africans early in the colonization of North America; Black participation in barbecue circuits (limited, Miller reports; he’s a certified barbecue judge); entrepreneurship and church gatherings; and maddening inconsistencies in media coverage over the decades. He discusses favored cuts (spare ribs have some weighty historical connections) and traces the fierce love of and rivalries around sauce, including shifts in taste from red pepper and vinegar bastes to the embrace of the ketchup-based styles.

In so many ways, Miller makes the case for Black contributions to American barbecue, though his erudition stops him short from claiming complete ownership: “This is not a cool, dispassionate thing to write, but I would love to prove that barbecue has an African origin while simultaneously forming an ‘X’ with my arms across my chest and shouting, ‘Wakanda Forever!’ Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.”

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SOURCE: LA Times, Bill Addison