Black Smoke, Adrian Miller’s deep history of Black barbecue, will give you some things to chew on

Photo by Paul Miller

Adrian Miller has adopted the sobriquet of “Soul Food Scholar,” and so it should be no surprise that he takes a scholarly approach to his books about southern foodways.

Miller is an attorney, former White House staffer and a James Beard Award-winning author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.

In his new book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, Miller turns his attention to the grand tradition of smoked meat as it exists in America. To compile the story—which takes plenty of unexpected twists and flips some conventional wisdom on its head—Miller combed through more than three-thousand oral histories from formerly enslaved people and reams of historical newspapers.

“I think what distinguishes me from many other barbecue writers is my tendency to go deep on the historical context and a dedication to telling the story from an African American point of view,” he says.

Miller’s book goes to great lengths to undermine some of the most common stories about American barbecue—for example, dedicating a chunk of the book to the Native American roots of barbecue. But it also celebrates Black pitmasters and examines why the food media that used to celebrate Black barbecue has lately become obsessed with white men who generally fall into the category of “Urban Hipster,” “Rural Bubba,” and “fine dining chefs who have entered the barbecue game.”

The media coverage of these white guys is so intense, comprehensive and constant that one could easily wonder whether Black people barbecue at all,” he writes.

We talked to Miller about why the famous/infamous Texas Monthly best barbecue list has lately overlooked the state’s great black pitmasters, whether KCBS should ban Confederate flags from competitions a la NASCAR and why “American Indian Eatery” Tocabe in Denver is a spot that serious students of barbecue should know.

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, ribs were synonymous with BBQ—you mention this in the discussion of the long end, short end and center cut. Gates in KC also does this, of course. Any idea why ribs are so big in Cleveland and is this true in other Rust Belt cities?

So many Rust Belt cities were significant meatpacking centers at one time during their histories. The slaughterhouses used railroads and rivers to connect rural farmers to far-away markets. Though tastes varied, spareribs appeared to be a cut of meat that was less desirable than others. African American entrepreneurs took advantage and, according to some anecdotes, got racks out of the slaughterhouses’ garbage, or paid for them at cheap prices, barbecued them and sold them to a ravenous public.

In your book, you went into a lot of depth about the Native American roots of barbecue. If someone said to you, “Hey, I want to experience Native American barbecue as a consumer when I’m traveling sometime,” is there anywhere you would point them?

There are some places, but such barbecues usually happen in private gatherings. One commercial establishment that I can think of is Tocabe, a Native American restaurant in my hometown of Denver. There diners can get grilled bison ribs with a seasonal berry sauce.

I was interested in your telling of why barbecue exists. Like a lot of people, I’d grown up hearing that it was a result of the plantation system, and slaves finding a way to cook the less desirable cuts. But in the book, you blow up that whole idea and talk a lot about indigenous cooking methods, which include piercing sticks, raised wood platforms and in-ground pits of various types. So if people are looking for an overly simple version of why barbecue exists in America, would it be more true to say that it’s because without fire-proof metal instruments indigenous people cooked meat indirectly, over a low flame, and that they passed on this knowledge?

That may be true to some extent, but there are plenty of examples of Native Americans cooking directly over a low flame. Barbecue exists because Europeans wanted to bend Native American smoking traditions towards something more suited to their purposes. Instead of just accepting barbecue as a means of preserving food for later use, Europeans wanted barbecue to be party food for a sizable crowd. Hence, it became whole animal cooking rather than cooking morsels of meat.

You point out that since the 1700s, people have been referring to grilling as “barbecuing.” So this battle about what makes something “barbecue” is literally as old as the entire concept?

Exactly! Barbecue has been imprecisely defined and sloppily applied ever since Europeans tried to approximate the indigenous words for this particular cooking process.

Do you think that Patillo’s has been given due consideration for the Texas Monthly top BBQ list over its history—which, of course, long predates the current guy who does BBQ coverage for them, Dan Vaughn? What about other Black-owned Texas pits?

I think Patillo’s has been historically slighted. After dining there, Vaughn has publicly acknowledged that he needed to be more mindful of how the ways he evaluated barbecue restaurants possibly excluded African American-owned restaurants from receiving accolades. Yet, overlooking Black-owned barbecue joints is a more recent phenomenon. If you look at the very first Texas Monthly best barbecue list published in 1973, Black barbecuers were decently represented.

What can all of us white BBQ writers do to better our approach to Black barbecue? I took from the book that there is sort of a fine line between having a problematic approach rooted in plantation culture, or erasing it while obsessing over these Instagram-friendly “craft barbecue” platters that are rooted in central Texas and the competition scene.

So much could be done. First, white barbecue writers need to bring Black barbecuers to their readers’ attention. As I traveled around the country, I was stunned and depressed by the number of restaurant critics in a city who knew very little about the African American barbecuers in their community. Second, stop being lazy and do the work to find these folks. Look how much love Jonathan Gold got in Los Angeles for eating off the beaten path and sharing those places with a larger audience.

You quoted someone who said that Confederate flags flying over barbecue competitions is one very overt sign to Black barbecue chefs that the competition circuit was often not welcoming. The problems obviously run a lot deeper, as you explained in great detail, but do you think a policy like NASCAR enacted, where they banned Confederate flags, would help if someone like the Kansas City Barbecue Society implemented it?

I’m not sure what the impact would be since there are so few African Americans competing, but it would be a step towards creating a more welcoming environment. In my interviews, African American barbecuers said that one doesn’t really see Confederate flags at contests outside of the South.

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