The "Soul Food Scholar" schools us on traditional African American cuisine—including the delicious subject of his new book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.
portrait of adrian miller eating barbecue
For historian Adrian Miller, a plate of smoked meat is research.
| Credit: Photography by Paul Miller

"Food tells the story of a people," says Adrian Miller, author, educator, and soul food scholar. "Any discussion of it puts you on that path to understanding the plight of a people. I'm very interested in that, in how food can bring us together and help us overcome our differences." His day-to-day may be as executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches (he's the first African American, as well as the first layperson, to hold that position). And he may have been an attorney and special assistant to Bill Clinton ("I worked on the President's Initiative for One America, an outgrowth of his Initiative on Race," he says). But Miller's passion is educating the world about Black food through his research and writing. And that includes barbecue, whose roots are, ironically, less acknowledged now than they were a century ago. "In the late 1800s and early 1900s, whites were much more likely to acknowledge that debt," says Miller, who, on top of his scholarship, is a certified barbecue judge. "Blackness and barbecue were wedded, and whites were more likely to go to a Black-run restaurant to get the hookup. We had Black barbecuers running whites-only restaurants."

History is just one of the areas Miller tackles in his new book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. It's his third dive into Black cuisine, having previously written about the history of African Americans cooking for presidents (The President's Kitchen Cabinet) as well as the James Beard Award–winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time. As we head into barbecue season, Miller gives us some of that history and shares simple ways we can appreciate it, and each other, beginning with some meat, coals, and our grills.

It’s spring, the beginning of barbecue season. What’s something people should know as we open our grills?

I think it's important to know barbecue's backstory. What we understand as barbecue has a Native American foundation, using wood and fire to preserve meat, fused with European techniques for grilling meat faster. That culinary knowledge gets passed down to enslaved African Americans and enslaved African American cooks. Historically, barbecue contravened a lot of racial etiquette when it came to food. Now we're at a point where African American barbecuers have been pushed to the side, and I think that's messed up.

How do you define barbecue?

Trying to define barbecue is like chasing a greased pig. I consider it cooking meat over a fire fueled with wood coals. Some people will go further and say it has to be low and slow, but a lot of African Americans cook hot and fast.

You’ve also written about soul food. How do you define that?

Soul food is one of the traditional cuisines of African Americans. For most people, it's shorthand for all Black cooking. It's really the food that Black migrants took out of the South and transplanted in other parts of the country. That migration story is really what soul food's about.

Can we talk about how soul food has been appropriated?

My opinion is outside the conventional wisdom on this. I believe that anybody should be able to make a culture's food as long as you, one, acknowledge where you got it from; two, make it well enough to honor the tradition; and three, if you are in a position to compensate the people you got it from, then you should do that. 

What makes a good acknowledgment?

I think about a menu that features Nashville hot chicken. That was invented in a Black restaurant called Prince's Hot Chicken. The menu could note that. When the server comes to your table and describes your dish to you, they can tell you the story. Elite diners in the United States are looking for that. They want context.

Have you found the same issue exists with barbecue?

No. Barbecue has so many cultural influences, I call it the Great Melting Pit. The only issue we have is this: the white people who are celebrated for barbecue—where did they learn how to make it? When you talk to a lot of them, if you go far enough back, there usually was some African American who schooled them on how to do it. 

adrian miller book covers
Credit: Photo Courtesy Adrian Miller

How can our readers be better allies when it comes to food?

Look at your social circles and ask how you can create a space to talk to other people using food. You have Black friends and white friends and you know their circles don't intersect. You could have a meal at your house and invite a variety of people over. It could be that simple.

You’ve written that “food is a very powerful tool for reconciling issues.” How so?

We have fewer spaces where we can come together. Food is one. Cooking is an act of love. Even if what's served is nasty, the person created something because they care about you. Sitting down at the table and looking someone in the eye, all of that comes together when you talk about food.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.