Adrian Miller, author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, discussed his new cookbook celebrating barbecue cookery and the role of African Americans in barbecue culture, in conversation with Leni Sorensen.
Watch the video from this event and read the transcript below:
In Black Smoke, Miller chronicles how Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restauranteurs helped develop this cornerstone of American foodways and how they are coming into their own today. It’s a smoke-filled story of Black perseverance, culinary innovation, and entrepreneurship. Though often pushed to the margins, African Americans have enriched a barbecue culture that has come to be embraced by all. Miller celebrates and restores the faces and stories of the men and women who have influenced this American cuisine. This beautifully illustrated chronicle also features 22 barbecue recipes collected just for this book.
“An engaging storyteller, Miller brings his subjects to vivid life, as in the chapter on Black barbecue entrepreneurship, which predates Emancipation, with enslaved men and women using their business proceeds to buy freedom. He explores what makes the Black barbecue aesthetic exceptional and the many complexities of etiquette…. [and] provides plenty of mouthwatering recipes by Black barbecue artists for sauce, meat and fish, and side dishes as well as profiles of unsung Black barbecue trailblazers across three centuries…. A highly entertaining, celebratory, and essential reader for history buffs and barbecue lovers alike.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Exuberant… studious but not stuffy… Miller never forgets that barbecue is, at its heart, about pleasure: about smoke, sizzle, and joy. Black Smoke is scholarship with a little sauce on its chin.”—Garden & Gun
“Black Smoke [offers] sage advice, excellent recipes, and explore[s] the history of BBQ…. Miller teaches you about the Black pitmasters—both men and women—who have carried this tradition for so long.”—Martha Stewart
“Miller shows how Indigenous forms of barbecue in the Americas were received and absorbed by white colonial settlers, and how, in the southern United States, Black Americans have been the keepers of the barbecue flame, throughout the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. Miller also seeks out and showcases generations of pitmasters who are still at work; he highlights individuals from different U.S. geographic areas and different traditions of barbecue…. A must for serious barbecue scholars and a solid choice for any food historian.”—Starred Review, Library Journal
“While other barbecue books share knowledge in the form of recipes and steps, or history as told from a white perspective, Miller gets us closer to seeing the full picture, and to acknowledging that the story is richer, and more delicious, with these shared stories.”—Local Palate
SARAH LAWSON Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
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Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers. Adrian Miller, author of Black Smoke, is a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge and a recipient of a James Beard Foundation book award for Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time. He is also author of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet. Welcome, Adrian.
Joining him is Dr. Leni Sorensen, who works as a university lecturer, museum consultant, hands-on presenter, and researcher with a focus on African American slavery, American agriculture, and women’s work in colonial and post-colonial America. She is retired from six years as the African American research historian at Monticello. Leni, thanks for joining us.
I hope you both have lots to talk about today, and we are eager to hear more about Black Smoke. Take it away.
LENI SORENSEN: Adrian, hello.
ADRIAN MILLER: Hey, good to see you.
LENI SORENSEN: It’s wonderful to be able to be here and to talk about this fabulous book. I’ve spent the last two weeks just poring my way through it. And what I find most evocative about it is that you have touched in your exploration and your research on not only the deep history of barbecue—Native American, indigenous people, Africans, African Americans, colonial America, antebellum America—but you’ve really captured that feeling that people have about barbecue. Their love of it, their craving for it, their journeying to find it, their attitudes about it. Which of course are as arbitrary as perhaps all the different ways you could cook rice. Clearly, everybody has their way that they feel is the way.
And I think you’ve really helped capture that in terms of that emotional response to this primary food. Smells being so important. I’m just stunned. As I read it, I’ve just been lusting for barbecue, and I have resisted doing it.
I only wanted to say this before I then ask you some questions because I really want to ask you some questions. It really evokes—the book has evoked in me memories not that I had forgotten but that weren’t often tapped. When I was a little girl in southern California, there was a radio—this was the late 1940s, and my dad and I would drive around, and he’d put the radio on in the car. And there was an ad from the Black section of town of Henry’s Barbecue. And he had beef barbecue, which is the question I want to come to at some point. And he had a jingle. Which I am now very old, and I have never forgotten it, and it makes me laugh every time. And it was, “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.”
ADRIAN MILLER: I love that.
LENI SORENSEN: I was like five or six, and I would just fall out on the seat. Long before seatbelts. I would just fall out and giggle and have hysterics. But also, we used to go—my dad would take us to those church lady, church men dinners on Fridays while they were earning money. And there would be maybe—there’d be five, six, eight, ten of them all through the area. And you could go to the one that had the fish, or you could go to the one with the chicken. You could go to the one with the ribs. I always loved the ribs because that’s my—and we would get these plates of food. And my dad, who was from New Orleans, had his particular favorites.
You’ve caught that feeling in this book: of family, of church, of the historical sweep of this wonderful art. You have a whole section on is it art or is it craft, and I think that’s really a prescient kind of way of looking at it. So, let me just say—or ask first—what do you think is the takeaway message that you want people to come away with when they read your book?
ADRIAN MILLER: The one thing I really want people to understand is that African Americans were fundamental in their contributions to this thing we call barbecue in this country. And unfortunately, African Americans—in the current storytelling about barbecue, our presence has either been greatly diminished or erased completely. And to use a term of art, that’s whack. So this book is really a celebration of African American barbecue culture and a restoration of African Americans to the barbecue narrative. So that’s the big takeaway. You just can’t talk about barbecue in this country without mentioning African Americans.
LENI SORENSEN: I would say that’s absolutely true. But I really liked your inclusion of the roots within indigenous cultures, the roots within African cultures, and then Afro-American cultures of various kinds. And even, again, the way that Europeans/white Americans first of all loved the food and many times appropriated the food but certainly understood the important ways in which the food could be used. And I think that’s a point that your whole section on the political—the barbecues that white politicians were using to garner votes and who had the best and whatever.
So, you’ve also got not only Black Americans bringing in—introducing or feeding people this wonderful food at this event, but they’re the draw. The food is the draw. Because who’s going to go to a barbecue where somebody is just serving scones? Who’s going to go to a political meeting, you know? Unless you have a lot of whiskey.
ADRIAN MILLER: Oh yes, lots. How else are you going to get those votes? Yeah, it was really important to me to kind of get into the early history of barbecue, which you know is hazy, right? Because there are three main players here, as you outlined. We’ve got Native Americans. We’ve got European Americans. We’ve got Africans coming into the mix. And two of those three are oral history traditions. So, I think I was very clear that, hey, I know that it can be problematic relying on European, white sources for this. But I’m steeped in a literary tradition, and so I wanted just to see what did they see. How did they react to this, and what was going through their minds as this thing called barbecue was taking shape?
Then the other thing I really wanted to emphasize is how much barbecue was tied to—after the Native American roots and foundations were laid and all of this grafting happens, how it gets tied to enslaved Africans and later enslaved African Americans and slavery. Because barbecue is scalable. And the reason why these large feasts could happen is because enslaved African Americans were doing the work from start to finish.
LENI SORENSEN: I found that something that’s always—I’m just a real pragmatic kind of a cook. Or my interest in it is often really pragmatic. So, who butchered the animals? Are they skinning that pork? Who’s hauling it around? Where are the guts going? Who’s making the sauce and where? Are they bringing it to the festival? Have they hired—are the Black men (usually men in the antebellum period certainly)—have they been hired early enough so that they brought their sauce with them? Or their water and salt and whatever else they might be putting in that. We always see the event happening—this completed event happening.
But I’m always interested in where was all this stuff happening that had to happen for that to happen? That’s really intriguing to me within how the Black community and the members of the community are not just the Black male pit masters but their wives, their nephews, their grandpas who are helping make and produce all of the materials that have to come in and the work that has to be done to get those. I mean, a half of beef is heavy. Half a pig is heavy. A quarter of a pig is heavy. So, where they transported? Where were they butchered? They’re not butchered on the site.
So, while I know you don’t necessarily address that, but somebody had to dig the hole for the pit itself. And your book excites all those questions. Like you say, they may not be documented, but we know that—and this is always my answer to documentation or the need for documentation. If you know that there is a pit, and it is fourteen feet long, and it is two feet deep, and it is four feet wide, and it has grills on it, and it has four half beefs and six pigs, somebody had to do it.
ADRIAN MILLER: Right.
LENI SORENSEN: So, you’ve already got—you have now the way of filling in the who and the where and the how long it took and all of that without documentation, but it has to have happened in order for that to happen.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. One of the cool things is—because I was yearning for those details as well, right? Because I really wanted to give readers a sense of the logistics of barbecue and how difficult old-school barbecue is. You know, the southern pit barbecue. So, the early coverage of barbecue was really high-level details, right? How many people were there, who put it on—the committee—what was served. Maybe a mention of the cooks.
But as the nineteenth century progresses, we find much more interest upon the journalists to give us a lot of those details. Not quite as extensively as you’ve laid out—and that would’ve been fascinating to find that—but we do find out more about the cooks: what they’re actually cooking, the process, how much time it took. So, yeah, it was interesting to see that develop. Maybe there was a foodie movement in the nineteenth century that manifested itself in this barbecue coverage.
LENI SORENSEN: I think reporters just wanted any kind of—to fill in enough words on any story that they had to tell. But I think the part that’s so both dismaying and compelling is that they’re writing, and often their remarks about the food are sometimes elegiac. They really like it. But in that terrible nineteenth-century, early-twentieth-century style, the ways in which the Black men in particular are referred to is very painful and hard to kind of get through. Because they just couldn’t find it in themselves even to be neutral, often, but certainly to find the kind of respect that today we really, in the general way, have begun to have tremendous respect for cooks and chefs, and we’re opening those doors. You know, men and women. But the transition has been spotty and tough over the twentieth century, it seems.
ADRIAN MILLER: One of my most interesting finds—and I agree with you. As we’ve seen in other coverage of African Americans during that time, often they weren’t even given the dignity of having their full name stated.
LENI SORENSEN: Oh, yeah. Aunt this and Uncle that. That’s all the way through almost any references to cookery and anything that has a skill. There seems to be the necessity to diminish the person who did it with these diminutives that reflect badly on the reporter. Let’s just put it that way. Because we know that Auntie whoever—they all had names. They all had names and histories and genealogies and families and commitments and community. But we have to remind people of that because if you don’t read it and you’re not from that milieu and you don’t have a sense of it, you don’t know that.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yep. And I found actually one of my favorite characters that I discovered in this research was a guy named Columbus B. Hill. And I’m partial to him because he was in Colorado. But he was doing massive barbecues. So, there was a time when he was doing a very significant barbecue in Denver, and so multiple newspapers covered him. And it was really interesting because you had one newspaper treat him with dignity. Their illustration of him is very—he’s like a person of authority.
LENI SORENSEN: Yeah, I remember it. Kind of standing upright. Mmm-hmm.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. Speaking in standard English—what we would call standard English today. And then you had the rival newspaper. He’s straight out of a plantation caricature, plantation dialect. So, it’s just like, okay, so what’s going on here?
LENI SORENSEN: I think that you could go back probably into that time and find out who these rival newspapers represented and get a feel for who’s reading it and why are they reading it and the general tenor. The same way you could—I don’t know which newspapers are reactionary or liberal these days. It’s all gotten very confusing. But certainly, there was a time when you could tell this is a so-and-so newspaper and that’s a such-and-such newspaper.
ADRIAN MILLER: Right, yeah. But I’m glad that these reporters—regardless of their motives, I’m glad that they started talking to the cooks. Because we get an insight into their mind, their traditions, how they come to this culinary art. And we get a sense of their expertise. And it’s no surprise that, regardless of the racial lens put on these people, that they were established as barbecue’s principal cooks and, for a long time, barbecue’s most effective ambassadors. Because these people with a highly marketable and coveted skill would be put on trains, boats, stagecoaches all across the country to do a southern barbecue. And a lot of times they stayed in a community and kickstarted that barbecue scene in terms of the restaurants. You know, the entrepreneurial aspect of it. So yeah, the spread of barbecue owes a great debt to these African American cooks.
LENI SORENSEN: Kind of a little shift here, but to get down to the actual meat of the matter, as it were, is your take and your research in terms of that kind of divide between the beef school—kind of the beef and sausage school—and the pork. Both the ribs, the chopped, the half, or whole body. How that I guess geographically and the presence of Black people—what I guess I’m trying to get at is we know that there was a huge—and you note this as well. That in the middle of the antebellum period, there’s a huge migration of enslaved African Americans into the Far West. And they take with them whatever their eastern traditions had been. How do you see their transitions to what we think of as western Texas—maybe west Louisiana, Texas. Does Mexico have barbecue? I don’t know enough. How did that transition happen within the Black community? Did you get a sense of that?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. So, you’re actually putting your finger on one of the biggest surprises of my research. Because I just bought into the idea that southern barbecue is pork. End of story. But when you go back and look at these sources, you can find that anything could wind up on that pit. They were doing pork, lamb, beef. In fact, the barbecue that took place right after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared in South Carolina at the end of the Civil War was a beef barbecue. In Port Royal, South Carolina. I was like, oh, wait a minute.
Now we have these kind of rigid, regional styles. Maybe not rigid, but you know. We have these defined regional styles that we fight about. So maybe there’s a little prehistory that says, well, maybe these lines are more blurred than we think. But I certainly find that as barbecue—and it was originally called Virginia barbecue. A lot of people acknowledge as the birthplace of this type of cooking. We see it showing up in places like Kentucky, western Tennessee, east Texas. And we see an adaptation to the local kind of agricultural culture, right? So, if they bring Virginia barbecue to Kentucky, maybe anything can show up on there, but maybe more lamb is going to show up. When they get to east Texas by the 1820s and 30s, we find that they’re cooking beef and pork as well. So, yeah, I do see cooks adapting to this.
And I’m going to borrow from Robert Moss, who is Southern Living magazine’s barbecue editor. He was really the first one to put out this theory, and it makes sense to me, in that the transition from rural barbecue to urban barbecue leads us from that whole-animal cooking to focusing on smaller cuts of meat. So, brisket, spareribs, sausage, chicken. And that leads to a great period of innovation, which then leads to the regional styles that we recognize today. Because before that, barbecue was pretty standardized. That trench you talked about earlier, cooking a whole animal butterfly. It was pretty standard no matter where you did it. Now they may call it something different. They may call it Kentucky barbecue or Carolina barbecue, but it was pretty standard. Then, after we get this transition into the urban context, that’s when we start to see defined regional styles.
LENI SORENSEN: It seems to me as well that these migrating—the forced migration of these enslaved Africans to places like Texas—it’s in those places they begin to encounter other populations of immigrants—Germans, French, Cajuns—that they had not encountered in the Old South, as it was often referred to. And of course, Virginia at that time early on was huge. It was all of West Virginia as well. So, it was this great big place. And people moved and took with them their Virginia—as you say, their Virginia identity. I’ve driven across the country many times, and the numbers of Jefferson parishes and Jefferson schools and Pulaski this and Madison that is just incredible. So, they’re taking with them and selling within the enslaved population from this area who have these same place names in their memory banks. And they’re taking these new places, but they’re now kind of running into these other immigrant groups. And how would you say that influenced the evolution of barbecue?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. So, every time we see an encounter where African American/southern/Virginia barbecue traditions meet up with some other culture, barbecue gets expanded. So, with the central immigrants that you speak of in kind of central Texas, barbecue then—instead of cooking directly over the heat source, one obvious change is people start talking about indirect smoking as barbecue. Because that was the tradition of these central immigrants. And then we see a focus on beef brisket and certain types of sausages. So, yeah, I find that barbecue gets expanded any time there’s an encounter with these other groups. And just sticking with Texas, here’s an example where barbecue gets expanded but not necessarily embraced by African American cooks. In southern Texas, there are Latino traditions that existed before Texas was a country or a state. More of an earth oven approach. So, the cabeza, the cow’s head, the cabrito. Those are definitely present but as far as I can tell not widely embraced in African American circles. So that’s one example of where maybe the encounter doesn’t lead to an integration or expansion of barbecue. But that tends to be the case when barbecue goes to other places.
So, this is what gives a springboard to all the arguments, right? Because then people are yearning for authenticity, and so we get these discussions of what is true barbecue. Somebody from Virginia in the 1800s would say, no, it’s pit cooking whole animals. That’s barbecue. What y’all are doing is smoking.
LENI SORENSEN: Yeah. In the same way, the evolution of the barbecue joint—that seemed to be a name that was common when I was a kid. That’s how you referred to places. The local barbecue joint. Where was it? Well, in west LA, these were all Black barbecue places. I don’t have an experience with Chicago, Detroit, in the northern tier. But I would assume that since those were real migration goals—destinations—that the descendents of the people from the Old South have now been in the New South or the Deep South or the Delta South or the Texas South, and now they’re migrating north into these northern environs, and they’re bringing with them their festival foods, their cherished foods, their deeply committed foods. And in that context, I think your book shows that evolution of the barbecue joint. It’s much more restaurant style. Can you talk about that some?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. So, if we’re going to look at kind of the progression of Black barbecue businesses, the early days was just somebody would clear out a space and cook a whole hog or animal, and then just sell till they ran out. So, there was an improvisational quality to it. But people knew that it was going down in the community.
And then we see the early iterations of the barbecue stand. And again, that may be that same spot where the person just did stuff every once in a while, now having a roof so you can shield it from the sun. And then we start to get brick-and-mortar locations. What’s interesting is, as African Americans do migrate from rural areas to these urban contexts, a lot of times they were in just urban spaces. They were running a barbecue cart in an alley. Because African American entrepreneurs historically have had a lack of access to adequate capital. So, we have this kind of improvisational quality again. But then you start to see people prosper and create the brick-and-mortar locations.
I find that sometimes people are trying to transplant the barbecue style of where they were from, but we see also innovation and a lot of examples. I’ll just say South Side Chicago, for example. We find that a Black migrant was cooking foods from the South, but then he noticed that the slaughterhouses were throwing away all these rib tips. And he thought, you know what, I could wash those things off, cook them up, and make some money. And then fall of a sudden you have something that impacts the regional style. And I think South Side Chicago does have a regional style. So, it’s just a rich dynamic of what’s going on here.
And the other note I want to just add before we get to another question is what’s interesting is that you find that whites are willing to go into the Black part of town for barbecue. And I don’t know if we always see that with other African American cuisine like soul food places and stuff. I’m talking about back then. We see it more now.
LENI SORENSEN: Not until it seemed like the old notion of slumming, which I say in parentheses there, of going to get to the soul food joint. Then it kind of acquires that. But that’s the thirties, forties, and fifties of the twentieth century, my feeling is.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. But the barbecue restaurant—barbecue stand, joint, whatever you call it—like many soul food restaurants and other restaurants in our culture, it’s a community center. A lot of people from all walks of life get there. And then by the time you get to the fifties and sixties and seventies, the rib joint is identifiably African American owned and specializing in spare ribs. There are articles written about rib joints, and everybody knows what they’re talking about.
LENI SORENSEN: Are they also serving beef rib? Do they lose that when they move out of Texas?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. When you move out of Texas, you find people maybe doing brisket. But I have to say in most of the restaurants that I’ve been in—Black-owned restaurants—where they have beef on the menu, it’s really thinly sliced. It’s not like the brisket that you see in central Texas. It’s either going to be thinly sliced, almost like roast beef, and sauced, or it’s going to be chopped up. Those are the iterations that I see. I don’t see a lot of beef ribs outside of Texas.
LENI SORENSEN: There’s a barbecue place in Richmond, Virginia, that while he doesn’t have it all the time—it’s kind of a specialty—you can get a couple of beef ribs. And they’re right pricey, but they are awfully good. I realized I hadn’t had beef barbecue in a very long time when I had it, and it really evoked a lot of taste memories.
ADRIAN MILLER: Now I know this is not a problem for you, but do you need teeth to eat their beef?
LENI SORENSEN: Their beef was pretty—it was pretty good. It really fell off the bone. I like my pork ribs even to be a little toothy. I want to actually work with it. I don’t need it to just be soft. But of course, back in the day when people had more children than teeth, it was good to have—sorry, I had to say that—it was good to have soft food. And you wanted to have a lot of things with that sauce. Just on a practical level, good barbecue that could be really tender and really fall off the bone—it meant that elder uncle and elder auntie and elder people in the community could enjoy this food as well. And I think that that’s part of making food accessible and good.
ADRIAN MILLER: And I’m glad you mentioned that because I do spend some time pondering this question: is there an African American barbecue aesthetic? And I think the fact that—I think a lot of people in the community would say yeah. They want their meat with some tug. They want some char. They want it sauced. So, yeah, I think you’re touching on something there.
LENI SORENSEN: But of course, now when you mention those qualities, I think we come to the big issue. The same way we do with cornbread and the sugar issue. Which I’m just going to say right now my New Orleans–born stepfather taught me how to make cornbread, and he always put brown sugar in it. Not a whole lot but just a little because he said it made it brown. And I’m going to cook cornbread exactly the same way he taught me seventy years ago. Okay, so there. Don’t argue with me. Please don’t. I don’t want to hear any protests.
However, what about the evolution of this sweet barbecue sauce? Is this a new thing? Is it just a wave? What do you think about that?
ADRIAN MILLER: I think it’s a new thing in this sense. I think it’s maybe a half-century old. Because when you go the first couple of centuries of barbecue, the sauce was pretty standardized. It was a vinegar base with red pepper, and it was savory. I just can’t remember any—in a significant way—sauces being used that were sweetened. So, I think it’s not until we get to the twentieth century with the advent of more tomato-based sauces. And we have a sweet tooth in this country, so added sugar to those tomato-based and ketchup-based sauces that we really start to see the sweet sauce really evolve.
Now that said—and I tried to chase down the sauce story. Really once you get outside the Carolinas, I think most places in the country really like a sweet sauce to some extent. What I’ve noticed is, in the South, the sauce tends to be thinner and not as thick as when we get to the Midwest. So, it’s a texture thing. But the level of sweetness is there. That’s kind of what I’ve noticed.
LENI SORENSEN: And the issue of hot—of spicy—of chilioso. Obviously, this is a long evolution, and it probably reaches all the way back to the indigenous people and which group used chilies the most and which used it the least. I have a fairly moderate tolerance for real hot, so I have to ask them how hot is this stuff going to be. But some people really like it. They want to be challenged. What do you see in terms of the evolution of the use of hot chilies in barbecue?
ADRIAN MILLER: So, it’s really interesting because the earliest kind of depiction that we get of a barbecue sauce is from the Caribbean. Father Pierre Lavott in his diary is talking about the indigenous people using a combination of citrus juice and chilies for some meat that they’re cooking.
So, one theory I have is that the vinegar and red pepper combination may be an ersatz version of that. That the Europeans are like, okay, we don’t have citrus all the time, but we do have vinegar. And the most prevalent—at least the one that people were commonly using was the cayenne chili or the red pepper, as people say. Even in the 1820s and 30s, you get these descriptions of barbecue, and people are complaining that it’s too hot. So, you can see that early African Americans, they were running the show, and they seasoned it to their tastes. And as you know, historically, spicy food at least in this country has been considered low class. So, I think that added another dimension to the working-class appeal of barbecue. That this is not fine dining, right? This is food of the people that’s going to be sustaining and spicy.
LENI SORENSEN: And you’re going to eat it with your hands. I think there’s that element too. This is hand food. Unless you’re going to put it between bread, and even then, you’re going to pick it up. So, I think there begins to be that distinction as well. I mean, imagine somebody with a knife and a fork and a plate of ribs, and you’d just have hysterics, wouldn’t you?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. And the complaints about African American barbecue sauce being spicy continue well into the twentieth century. Some of the most notable names, like Henry Perry of Kansas City, Arthur Bryant of Kansas City, other folks—customers are like, “You make this sauce too hot, but this barbecue is good.”
LENI SORENSEN: Yeah, but I have to eat it anyway.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah. And now it’s just crazy. We have so much global warming on our palettes now, it’s just to the point where—I don’t know if it makes sense that you have to sign a release before you eat some food because it’s that spicy. And you’re wearing gloves and goggles.
LENI SORENSEN: No, that doesn’t—because this brings me to, at the same time that we have this evolution from the large political event, pit barbecue, small entrepreneurial to larger restaurant style and that kind of production, which is a whole other process, you then have what’s happening in the home. The African American community obviously could go—and probably did—within church-affiliated mostly kinds of events. But people were obviously at baseball games, at family picnics. So how was the family traditional of barbecue evolving kind of I think at the same time as that other, larger tradition?
ADRIAN MILLER: Right. So, yeah, the private barbecue is definitely thriving within Black culture with these smaller gatherings of family—like you said, churches and other things. So, from what I could tell, it started out as just purely a summer thing. But I think as we get the Great Migration, I find more examples of people barbecuing even during the winter. For like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and also family gatherings. So it was that taste of home that, even though the weather didn’t make sense, people really wanted to continue that tradition. And so, I can just tell you growing up in Denver we only had barbecue four times. We had it on Memorial Day, July 4th, and then mid-July because my church always had a men’s day barbecue deal, and then Labor Day. And we rarely went out to eat barbecue. So, I’m eating much more barbecue now than I did growing up. And I don’t know if that’s representative of other families, but it was truly for us special occasion food.
LENI SORENSEN: Yeah. To me, it was going out on the Friday with Daddy to get the meals. That was a very special thing. And I don’t remember eating much barbecue out from that. But I feel that people in urban areas within Black communities and especially the larger northern urban areas probably were able—this seems to me. Now you correct me if you think I’m going off the rails here. They had more access to grocery stores and meat markets and butchers and large commercial entities that were selling meat in that way so that out of the traditional summer season people were able to get these pieces of meat that certainly before the Civil War would have been unavailable out of season. Or would have been so salted—and I’m going to hold that question because I want to ask you about that—to get that out of season. So maybe they’re making a little more barbecue within their home spheres—more celebrations, birthdays, that kind of thing—because they can actually get the meat. It’s available.
ADRIAN MILLER: That’s a very interesting point. I wish I had included that in my book. If I get a revised version, I might have to include that and credit you. And now that you say that there’s another aspect of this: access to barbecuing equipment. As people got outside of the South, they had more access to public parks. There are a lot of people that told me they weren’t really doing barbecue at home in the backyard. Somebody in the family went to the local park, and they were doing their thing, and people kind of knew about that. So that’s another aspect. I didn’t think about that access question. So that’s really interesting. Thanks for bringing that up.
LENI SORENSEN: Well, I’m thinking—because I’m jumping off of what you just said—I remember the first time I was living in South Dakota. We were farming there, and a friend brought his big, huge—he called it his smoker. But he always called whatever he produced—this is a Norwegian, Dane South Dakota boy with this big thing that he pulled behind his truck. And it was made out of a huge barrel and had a lid. We did a whole quarter of a steer calf. It was big enough to do it. It was big. And he would go around to various parties. He didn’t charge anything. Everybody supplied the meat, and he would just cook it. But it’s the equipment. Seeing that piece of equipment. And I’ve watched enough barbecue shows that I’m always impressed with the ingenuity. I always think of it as American ingenuity. Actually, I may just be being ethnocentric about it. But the amazing array of barbecue equipment stuff that has been invented. Were you able to kind of check some of that out, to see who invented some of that stuff? Once they took it out of the pit, where were they doing it? How were they transporting it?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah, so Leni, you’ll understand this. The publisher gave me a certain word limit. And so, I really wanted to do a chapter on the material culture of African-American barbecue. So, I wanted to talk about these grills. We’ve got brothers making grills out of toilets, file cabinets. I wanted to capture that. As well as the bricks. I know a gentleman in Kansas City. He’s retired now. He’s in his eighties. But, man, he built most of the brick pits for a lot of the legendary barbecue joints in Kansas City. So, I wanted to bring those people in, but I just didn’t have enough space.
LENI SORENSEN: Well, I think we’re going to have to have book two.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah, More Black Smoke, right?
LENI SORENSEN: Yes, More Black Smoke. And certainly—and I don’t mean this as an end point, but I think all the way woven through this story—and you did it, I think, very well—the women in barbecue. Could you expand upon that from the beginning and through to now, however it occurs to you?
ADRIAN MILLER: Oh, yeah, so I actually was going to do a separate chapter on Black women in barbecue. But so many of my sisters slapped me upside my head and said, “Don’t you dare. You just weave us in the narrative.” I was like all right. Because barbecue is presented as this all-boys club, and that’s just not the case in the Black community. My own family—the griller-in-chief was my mother. And I talk to more and more people, and they say, “Yeah, my mom was the one who threw down.”
So, one story that I really loved to share was the story of Mary John in 1840s Arkansas—an enslaved woman. And there are newspaper articles about her superintending barbecues. That was the language for being a pitmaster in that day. And she buys her freedom, runs a restaurant in Arkansas. So, I wanted to establish that legacy and just point out Black women have been in the barbecue game from the earliest days and just show that legacy.
LENI SORENSEN: Well, as I said earlier about how all of the stuff comes together to eventually become the meat on the grill, I think that’s where women and girls and ancillary family members really start playing a role. Because who earned the money and how to buy the tomatoes, the ketchup, the vinegar—it all had to be bought. And the sugar. Or the spices. Where’d you get those chilies? Well, you might’ve grown them. Depending on where you live, of course, you might have them in your backyard. But another place is you had to buy that, and that had to come out of the family economy. And I think given the role of Black women in the family economy, whether they were actually mopping the meat with that sauce, they had participated in the making of that sauce because they were helping supply all of the ingredients for that. And then you have the sides, which you’ve included some wonderful recipes for sides, which are almost always—as far as I’m able to discern—made by women. Made by the women in the community, the church ladies, the wives, the aunts, for festivals in particular. Homecomings and funerals. That seems to be a role that women are not merely expected to step into but literally looked to to step into. If you see the difference, you know? It wouldn’t be the same kind of ceremony without their participation in that.
And so those sides play—they’re the supporting actors. Because those rough and ready antebellum barbecues, which would’ve been at James Madison’s Montpelier. There were political barbecues. And they had mostly, it would appear, large amounts of meat and bread and whiskey. So, it wasn’t like there was a lot of extra food. But as those kinds of meals expanded to be more meal-like, where you really had choices. And certainly, within restaurants, who made the best potato salad. And all of the debates. I think book two could cover that.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah, there’s still a lot of ground to cover. So, I was really happy to tell this story, but there’s so much left, and I wanted to leave people hungry for more. So yeah. And even today, when we talk about these regional barbecue styles, although the focus is on the meat, I think the side dishes play a significant role in defining a style—a regional style.
LENI SORENSEN: And making the meal complete.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah.
LENI SORENSEN: I think that’s part of it as well. Well, I am told that we are nearing our end point. And this has been just fabulous. I so enjoy talking to you and learning, and I’m going to look forward to book two. Because I think that’s something that you have now with your research and all of the contacts that you’ve made—have the ability to really plumb those depths and tell us more. Because we need to know more. It’s an important story. And I’m going to say goodbye to you and wish you the very, very best.
ADRIAN MILLER: Well, thank you so much. It’s always good to be with you. I’m going to holler at you about that LA barbecue upbringing.
LENI SORENSEN: Okay, and I have some funny pictures to send to you, which I will.
ADRIAN MILLER: Okay, great.
LENI SORENSEN: Well, it’s time for us to wrap things up. Thanks to everybody. Thanks to Adrian. Thanks to everybody that tuned in, and please consider buying Black Smoke from your local bookseller or through the links on VaBook.org. You can also check out future events from the Virginia Festival of the Book on VaBook.org. And it’s been wonderful being with you. I wish you all the best.
ADRIAN MILLER: All right. Peace.