After serving in the Clinton White House as a special assistant and Deputy Director of the One America Initiative, Adrian E. Miller returned to his hometown of Denver to continue making change for good. Along the way, his passion for good food and literature led him to become the Soul Food Scholar, traveling across the country to chronicle the rich culinary and cultural history of soul food in America.
Miller has published two books: Soul Food, which won the 2014 James Beard award for reference and scholarship, and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, which received a nomination for a NAACP Image Award for outstanding nonfiction literature.
Miller is currently working on Black Smoke, his third book, a celebration of African American contributions to barbecue culture in the United States. His research has taken him from Vegas to Memphis, Chicago, Houston and beyond, and his latest stop was right here in Milwaukee. So, of course, we just had to flag him down on his way out to talk MKE BBQ.
On your website, you describe yourself as “a recovering lawyer and politico who turned into a food writer.” What led you to become a food writer? Are you still active in the political sphere, or are you a full-time author now?
The short answer is “unemployment.” I had just ended a stint in the Clinton White House, and I was planning to move back to my hometown of Denver. The job market was slow at the time. I ended up watching so much daytime television that I finally said to myself, “I need to read something.” I went to a local bookstore, and while browsing, I picked up a copy of John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. In that book he wrote that the tribute to African American achievement in cookery had yet to be written. With no qualifications at all, except for eating a lot of soul food, I said “I can do that.” That’s what started the journey. I’m not a full-time author. I’m currently the Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches, so I write as a side hustle.
What inspired you to write Black Smoke?
I was slowly radicalized by consuming food media that overwhelmingly told stories about white people making barbecue. I had always thought of barbecue as a very inclusive food tradition. It just seemed that food media was in love with two types of barbecuing white dudes: urban hipsters and rural bubbas. I wanted to look at barbecue history and figure how and why things changed. Black Smoke will be a strong reminder that one cannot talk about barbecue in the United States without making [mention of] African Americans.
To readers who dare say that barbecue is barbecue wherever you get it, what culinary and cultural aspects set African American barbecue culture apart from other barbecue cultures?
The main difference is that African American barbecue tastes better. Just kidding! Sort of. With African American barbecue, spareribs are the favorite barbecue item. Sure, other meats are consumed, but ribs are where it’s at. This barbecue tradition also fully embraces sauce, which is a sharp contrast to the emerging conventional wisdom that sauce is a detriment. African American barbecue also has more unusual items like barbecue spaghetti, goat, turkey and soul food side dishes.
How does Milwaukee’s African American barbecue scene compare to others you’ve researched?
Milwaukee’s barbecue was better than I expected! That’s probably because the city has so many iconic food traditions that people overlook the barbecue. The food at Ashley’s Bar-B-Que and Speed Queen Bar-B-Q is pretty consistent with other African American barbecue joints in the Midwest in terms of the menu items: hot links, pork shoulder, pork spareribs and rib tips. The barbecue at Ashley’s was very flavorful and tender. As is case around the country, it seems the newer restaurants in Milwaukee feature a central Texas barbecue style. I saw this, and had some good eats at Heaven’s Table and Iron Grate BBQ.
Did you have any memorable experiences during your time in the city, related to your research or otherwise?
I was actually in the area to speak about soul food to high school students in Racine. It was fun because only about 15% of them were sleeping which is GREAT for that demographic. The rest were really engaged and they asked interesting questions. I’m very grateful to SC Johnson for making my visit possible. I did hit the Mars Cheese Castle and got some cheese curds that squeak. I consumed a butter burger at Sobelman’s and I got a kringle at O&H Bakery. I didn’t have enough room in my stomach to get a good brat and try that hoppel poppel dish. All in all, a good time. I’d to come back and grub some more.