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Food history lesson: ‘Black Smoke’ author Adrian Miller sheds light on BBQ’s Black history

  • July 29, 2021

Adrian Miller couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Back in 2004, he found himself watching a Paula Deen special about Southern barbecue. By the time its credits rolled, he’d seen not a single Black barbecue chef profiled. “An hourlong special with no Black people at all,” he said. “And you know, that’s just crazy.” 

Until recently, the oversight would likely have been inconceivable, said Miller, a Beard Award-winning writer of food history and author of a new book called “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” 

Stretching back to Colonial times when enslaved Africans were most often in charge of the pits, Black barbecue cooks had been regarded as the most skilled practitioners of the art during most of America’s history, Miller said. 

In a conversational and voluminously researched tome spiked with recipes and profiles of Black chefs, Miller documents Southern barbecue from its beginnings in Virginia, where Native American pit cooking techniques were married to European preferences, and adapted according to the palates of its West African cooks. 

Barbecue spread with slavery across the South. And after the Civil War, it became a coveted skill and a way for formerly enslaved people to earn a living, not just in the South but all over the country. Until a few decades ago, Miller said, a discussion of barbecue without Black chefs would have seemed just plain “weird.”

“People of a certain age, if you were asking what was their first taste of barbecue at a restaurant — and I’m talking about across the country — they would probably say an African American guy,” Miller said.

Yet as barbecue’s profile rose precipitously in recent decades — riding an updraft from the newfound popularity of Central Texas brisket — Black barbecue chefs were rarely seen nor heard from in major media.  

Granted, barbecue media has seen a correction in the past few years. In 2015, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn wrote that his publication’s obsession with brisket codified by the “legendary, mostly white-owned, joints of Central Texas” had caused him to overlook the chicken and spiced beef links of century-old, Black-owned Patillo’s in Beaumont, Texas

This year, South Carolina’s Rodney Scott became one of the first Black pitmasters in decades to get a major book deal. Netflix series “High on the Hog” documents African influences on barbecue.

Miller’s “Black Smoke” offers a comprehensive argument for Black barbecue chefs’ place at the smoker, and an ode to a history that’s largely been buried. We asked him how barbecue media got whitewashed, and what goes missing when you remove Black pitmasters from the conversation. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So what gets lost when media overlooks Black barbecue?

At first I didn’t think it was that big a deal. But it’s now having economic consequences. People are now being told that the white aesthetic on barbecue is the only authentic and legitimate one. 

Central Texas is a really great example of this. When you think Central Texas barbecue, you probably only hear about the white guys. You know, Central Texas has been gentrified. You have these very Instagrammable, perfectly manicured slices of beef brisket. I would argue that Central Texas barbecue has become the default barbecue style in United States.

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I think there are a couple things going on. One is the international influence of (Texas Monthly’s) Daniel Vaughn. And then it’s (Austin-based barbecue star) Aaron Franklin, who is the most recognizable barbecue guy on the planet. 

You get customers walking into Black-owned joints, which traditionally have done other forms of barbecue. And people are asking for (Kansas City) burnt ends and brisket. And if they don’t see it on the menu, they walk out. 

So even someone from East Texas, with more Black-owned restaurants and a stronger emphasis on sauce and birds and beef links, can get told “That’s not Texas barbecue.”

Exactly. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s too messy. There’s too much sauce. That’s not real Texas.’ 

Sauce and flavor have been a big part of barbecue for a long time. Now people are being told sauce means you’re “hiding something.”

That drives me nuts. My thing is, look: If you don’t want your barbecue sauce, that’s fine. But don’t tell people that that’s the only way to have authentic barbecue. Because it’s not.

What gets lost is the real comprehensive feel for barbecue culture, because there’s a focus on only part of it. You’ve got a very vibrant African American culture. I also think there’s a loss of appreciation for other regional styles. North Carolina, South Carolina, and then the subregions: Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, East Texas, South Texas, South Side Chicago, West Chicago. 

Are there places Black-owned barbecue is endangered? Current barbecue in the Northeast doesn’t figure much in your book, yet you write about a vibrant historical scene in Harlem.

The effect of the Great Migration was there was a lot of great barbecue in the Northeast. A lot of those places have closed. One place I think about is Curtis’s ‘Ninth Wonder of the World’ barbecue. That was in Putney, Vermont. And that brother was cooking out of a school bus, which I just think is hilarious. But he closed. (Note: The family of its late chef, Curtis Tuff, is trying to re-open.)

Harlem had a lot of great places. (But) I went to New York recently, and I put it out on my social media: ‘Hey, where’s the Black-owned place in New York?’ I’m telling you nobody answered.

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I think it’s a generational change. It’s a function of people retiring or dying. Neither their children or longtime employees want to continue the business. There probably is a gentrification factor, especially in a place like Harlem. I mean, have you been to Harlem recently?

Why did the media stop covering Black-owned spots as much?

The short answer is a shift in media. Before the 1990s, it was no problem to have African Americans featured in barbecue. In fact, it would be weird to do a barbecue story without African Americans.

I think (the change) is a reflection of this growing group called foodies. You know, they’re middle class people with more diverse palates than their parents. And they were very interested in authentic food experiences. The people who were trying to meet the needs of that audience, they just put out white people after white people after white people.

Either they were only asking other white people for recommendations on what to cover, or they were fundamentally uninterested in diversity. 

All through the ’90s this starts feeding upon itself and gaining momentum to the point that during the 2000s, most of the barbecue media is focused on white people.

And yet going back to the 19th century, your book documents that barbecue was one of the few arenas where newspapers would write about Black business owners. 

It was a mixed bag, because a lot of these journalists had attitudes, like some were racist. But then there were some that treated their subject with respect.

There’s a really interesting racial history of barbecue restaurants. Unlike soul food restaurants, whites were willing to go into the Black part of town for barbecue. 

Barbecue practitioners were fewer in number, and had a very coveted skill. And there was a conventional wisdom, because of all the centuries of connecting blackness with barbecue, that the very best barbecue was going to be made by an African American. 

You had Black entrepreneurs running barbecue restaurants that were whites only. The Black customers had to get a takeout out of a back window. By the time we get to the civil rights era, you actually have African Americans picketing Black restaurants to desegregate. 

You note that another arena where Black chefs have been left out is the barbecue competition circuit.

The early days of competitions, you had African Americans participating. I don’t think a lot of people know this, but the first winner of the Memphis in May competition was a Black woman. In the early days of the American Royal, African Americans did pretty well. 

When these competitions started getting big and more corporate, you start to see African American participation wane. And I think it’s a function of money. I mean, the entry fees, the food you’ve got to buy, the rigs you’ve gotta have. And also the lifestyle, because if you want to make serious money on the competition circuit, you need to be in several contests. The average worker has two weeks of vacation.

You’ve said you were surprised how many local food writers had no knowledge of Black-owned barbecue spots.

It was very disappointing. I would say that trend held up for just Black restaurants in general, even soul joints. I can’t tell you how many people are like, ‘Yeah, we don’t really have any.’ And then you know, there’s like 10 spots. And some of them have been around for 25 years. 

It just made me wonder: To what extent are these food writers and others really serving their community? I know that if people knew about these places, they would go. I know that.

Is this laziness? Lack of representation in media?

We just don’t have a lot of African Americans in food writing. There are more now than there were 10 years ago, for sure. 

Of all the aspects of African American culture, food is the one that gets the least amount of love. The key cultural icons in African American culture don’t talk about it that much. Almost every aspect of Black culture has gone global — African American culture. The way we dress, sing, talk, entertain, play sports, dance. Everything except our food. I’m trying to figure out why.

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