Denver’s Adrian Miller Shines the Spotlight on the History of Black Barbecue in His New Book

In his new book Black Smoke, local soul food historian Adrian Miller takes aim at the whitewashing of American barbecue. He does this by establishing an inclusionary narrative based around the massive and underrepresented contributions of Black chefs and pitmasters that’s been occurring since day one. Through a series of topical essays, vignettes on some of the fare’s forgotten heroes and a collection of 22 recipes, Miller traces the development of what may very well be the country’s most revered food tradition.

The title continues, and perhaps amplifies, what he presents in his first two books — Soul Food and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet — by investigating individuals and trajectories that have either been overlooked or deliberately excluded by the mainstream. It’s meant both as a restoration and a celebration — and certainly reads as such — with Miller’s jaunty prose helping to convert what can be tender topics into exquisite food for thought. His writing is clearly geared towards opening discussions — contentious assertions are presented boldly in the spirit of sympathetic debate. “I think if people feel seen it could be the entrée into a deeper conversation. I’ve always seen my books as an appetizer,” grinned the author.

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With an initial release of April 27, Miller has rolled out the book with a series of local “Meat and Eats” — multi-hour book signings alongside local joints serving up recipes straight from the text. He’s already popped up at GQue, appeared at Barbosa’s Barbecue as it served pork belly burnt ends, presented at Rolling Smoke BBQ which did a grilled lamb chop and landed his latest display at Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que in Golden. “It’s been a very impressive launch,” said Miller, noting that the initial numbers put Black Smoke at #1 in Amazon’s sections for both Barbecue and Grilling and Gastronomic History. An upcoming barbecue brunch is scheduled for this Sunday at Hank’s Texas Barbecue.

In addition to writing two authoritative titles in the world of food scholarship, Miller has appeared most recently on Netflix’s lauded 2021 series “High on the Hog” as well as consulting on “Chef’s Table BBQ.” He’s also been busy guest-editing a collection of barbecue essays for a July release on Allrecipes, been working on the July issue of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s journal Gravy, as well as preparing for a series of speaking dates on Juneteenth at both the local Boomers Leading Change and Harvard.

The book succeeds in both restoration — for a food media narrative that has grossly neglected Black stories — and celebration — in elegantly and exhaustively telling those tales. “It’s aimed at the mainstream reader, with the receipts for those who want to do a deeper dive,” said Miller. The author includes both a 30-plus page index of primary and secondary sources, as well as a list of his favorite barbecue joints from the nearly 200 locations he visited in the interest of research.

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Restoration-wise, Miller’s principal assertion is that up until the last couple of years the press has disproportionately favored white celebrities despite the obvious excellence held across pitmasters of every race. “All of this has been driven by the rise of foodies,” he said, noting that as the cuisine has snowballed in the public eye most outlets have gravitated towards a burgeoning flock of its young white champions. “There was a universal sense amongst Black pitmasters that they had got the short end of the stick,” recounted Miller. He further cites the recently released Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ as one of the most glaring examples of just how sparse the representation has been, noting that it is the first book to have been published to any wide acclaim by a Black pitmaster in 30 years.

In order to rectify the problem, Black Smoke talks almost entirely about Black pitmasters, presenting evidence that is both unique and corrective. It doesn’t tell the whole story and never purports to. This book is about serving up what’s been left out.

Originally planned as a series of profiles, the chapters are instead broken down by theme, with both historical — barbecue’s role in church culture, entrepreneurship and competition — and gastronomical — “the primacy of sauce” — assessments all being fleshed out by brief bios that are sometimes a bit awkwardly smashed in the center of a section.

In this, Miller’s book is truly a delightful commemoration of centuries of Black talent dating back all the way to early interactions with Native Americans — as he presents as the real foundations of the American style. Many of his subjects would arrange events that served tens of thousands of people, often to zero or limited fanfare, complete with racist overtones. These characters are indeed paragons of ‘cue, pillars of a tradition that at its best is one of the greatest emblems of unity and joy ever to emerge on Western soil.

Black Smoke also appears to have arrived amidst a positive swell, with Miller highlighting Scott’s book and some of the last few sets of inductees to the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame as good signs that the story is becoming a bit more comprehensive.

While Miller is currently deeply entrenched in the world of smoked meats and sauce, he says he has three more books up his sleeve — a dinner guide for difficult situations could arrive as soon as late summer or the beginning of fall 2021, with a text on African Americans in Early Colorado and another on African American Street Vendors landing before 2026. If food is a vehicle to discuss everything under the sun, Miller has done a good job of encapsulating both this country’s ugliest truths and its most singular triumphs in a way that encourages it all to sink in, be it distasteful or delicious. “There’s plenty of room at the cookout for everyone,” he smiled.

All of Miller’s books including Black Smoke can be purchased directly from his website. It is also available locally at both Tattered Cover and BookBar.

Miller’s “Meat and Eats” series will host its next event at Hank’s Texas Barbecue at 5410 East Colfax Ave., Denver on Sunday, May 23 from 1 – 4 p.m.

Info on other upcoming appearances can be found on his Instagram.

All photography by Kori Hazel.