Who doesn’t love a book with more than one index entry for possum? Two hundred of them were cooked at an Oklahoma City bash in 1923, along with 5,000 chickens, 10 bears, 500 beef cattle, 5 tons of coffee, etc. These are but some of the many fascinating facts in Adrian Miller’s new book Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.
The book has 22 recipes (bison skewers, banana pudding, alligator ribs), 16 mini-profiles (such as barbecue king Henry “Poppa” Miller), and a big mission.
In the 1990s, Miller worked as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton in the One America Initiative, which had the goal of fostering dialogue and helping communities reconcile racial divisions. Miller’s books could be seen as an extension of that experience. His James Beard Award-winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time expounded upon the social history of key soul dishes—fried chicken, chitlins, yams. In The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, Miller researched the contributions of African Americans who worked in the White House kitchen.
So faced with a whitewashed and one-sided representation of barbecue, Miller got to work. While most people agree that barbecue is a result of European influences dovetailing with Native American techniques in Southern kitchens where the cooks were African Americans—that barbecue, in other words, is Black—evidence, by which I mean scholarly evidence, well-researched and reliably sourced, has been vanishingly scant.
To find that essential information, Miller turned mostly to newspaper archives.
“For all my books, the biggest boon has been newspapers,” he told me. “They were about capturing the daily life of the community, and so you got a lot more flourish and details about what was happening at a particular event.”
He sifted through the records of the speakers and the attendees at big community barbecues—which was tough work, since the food was often barely mentioned.
Eventually, “writers started paying more attention to the details and at a time when African Americans went unnoticed more and more of them started talking to these Black barbecuers.”
“Now, let’s just be straight up,” Miller said. “Part of this was to mock them. So you’d have them speaking in plantation dialect. But you saw other writers treating this person as an expert, as an artist and showing some love.”
“I’ve struggled on how to tell people this,” Miller told me. “During the racist times you actually got more details.”
And by the 1830s, in order to have legit barbecue, it was thought, an African American cook and his crew were necessary and barbecue was understood to be a Black experience. Miller explained a complicated twist in the narrative in words far more polite than I might have chosen: “In the 1850s, as there’s more and more tension about slavery, you actually find pro-slavery advocates using the plantation barbecue as evidence of their generosity.”
After the Civil War, a group of African Americans “emerged from slavery with a highly specialized and marketable skill.” Barbecue culture flourished because African Americans were barbecuing on their own terms. “And that shows up with political barbecue, church barbecue and also emancipation barbecues.”
Barbecue, after all, is perfectly suited to big crowds. You can feed thousands of people, as many as show up, as long as you’ve got the wood, the space and the meat.
But the meat, says Miller, is not as cut-and-dried, so to speak, as one might think.
In words sure to bring upon him (if not me, by association) a plague of wonky BBQ commentary, Miller reports that: “The regional barbecue styles that we fight about so fiercely today, they’re only about a hundred years old. Before that, barbecue was pretty standardized. It was hardwood coals in a trench, butterflied whole carcasses, flip it and sauce it, cut it up and serve it.” Pork was common, of course, but so was lamb and mutton, and the first emancipation barbecue, which took place in Port Royal, South Carolina, was a beef barbecue.
Equally fascinating are the unsung regions of barbecue that Miller has championed such as St. Louis, Chicago, and the east side of Texas, where the meat comes with sauce and the sides aren’t the Germanic salads you find in Central Texas but soul food greens and creole dirty rice.
So what happened over the last century? How did we get to a place where white people are thought to own barbecue?
“At the very time that people are getting interested in barbecue, the non-diverse food media basically said ‘OK, these are the people we think should tell you what barbecue is, and where to get the good stuff.’ And they just kept putting white dude after white dude out in front.”
And as he says it, and we talk about the trends that get pushed in barbecue, it becomes obvious, almost to the point of hilarity: the reason the mantra of barbecue became minimal seasoning was because we kept asking white people how to make barbecue. I suggest that I hear an echo of the old joke about how white people don’t season their food, and he laughs and agrees.
“We’ll just flip that to our advantage,” Miller said, “and say you don’t need to season.”
This trend is a big part of what brought Miller to write this book. “Chronically, there’s been so little coverage of African American barbecue culture.” Everywhere in the food media, the lack of African American representation “just hit me over and over.”
He wasn’t sure, upon setting out on the project, how much he would find, and he feared, in the beginning, that he might be embarking on a record of faded glory. “I really thought I was going to be writing an elegy about Black barbecue,” he said. But “it’s thriving. It’s resilient.”