‘Black Smoke’ gives African-American pitmasters what they need

When Adrian Miller wrote his first award-winning book “Soul Food: the surprising story of American cuisine, one plate at a time”, he originally planned to include a barbecue chapter.

In soul food restaurants, grilled pork is often an option among oxtails, catfish, and fried chicken entrees. And even though the meat was technically cooked and glazed with a sweet tomato glaze rather than indirect heat smoked, Miller considered barbecue to be part of the lexicon.

The more he searched and ate, however, he realized that the subject of the African American barbecue demanded a book of his own. Her resolve was bolstered after watching a Paula Deen special on the Food Network in 2004. It was all about barbecue, but it didn’t spot a single black expert. As Miller writes in the introduction to “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of the Barbecue”, “I saw shots of black people in the background doing the job, but they were anonymous and speechless. … I remember thinking, as I turned off the television, “Is this what black barbecues have become?” It’s just B-roll sequences now? “

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Miller’s writing style is warm and fluid and sometimes tinged with humor; the stock market anchors all of his work, and there have been centuries of mythology, erasure, and changing public tastes to unravel.

(Miller, who describes himself as a “recovering lawyer,” served in the White House as President Bill Clinton’s special assistant with his Initiative for One America. Miller’s second book was “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who fed our first families, from Washington to Obamas. ”You may have seen him recently on Netflix’s“ High On The Hog, ”talking about Chiefs Hercules and James Hemings with host Stephen Satterfield .)

Cover of the book “Black Smoke” by Adrian Miller

(University of North California Press)

The barbecue, as a destination restaurant and obsessive pastime, has achieved pop culture status over the past 20 years, so the arrival of “Black Smoke” couldn’t be more timely. The chapters approach the subject from prismatic angles: from Native American foundations to techniques known as barbecue; the nuanced and often loaded accounts of African Americans identified as barbecue specialists, beginning with Africans enslaved during the early colonization of North America; Black participation in barbecue tours (limited, reports Miller; he is a certified barbecue judge); entrepreneurship and church gatherings; and maddening inconsistencies in media coverage over the decades. It discusses favorite cuts (ribs have important historical ties) and traces the fierce love and rivalries around the sauce, including the taste changes from red pepper and vinegar to adopting styles based on ketchup.

In many ways, Miller argues for the contribution of blacks to the American barbecue, although his scholarship prevents him from claiming full ownership: “It’s not a cool, unbiased thing to write, but I’d love to. prove that barbecue has an African meaning. origin while simultaneously forming an “X” with my arms across my chest and shouting “Wakanda Forever!” Unfortunately, it is not that easy.

I covered the South for most of the first decade of my career as a food writer and always cherished the regional barbecue styles that existed from state to state. Miller points out that Central Texas traditions – the centerpiece of which, of course, is beef brisket cooked to the sumptuousness of custard with a thick, peppery rind – have become the default American barbecue style. of the new millennium. Well done, it is undeniably delicious. Top local businesses like Moo’s Craft Barbecue in Lincoln Heights and Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano have built their reputations largely around the chest.

“I understand why people gravitate towards this specialty,” Miller said in a telephone interview. “What I’m trying to say is that when you talk about barbecue in Texas, just understand that there are many traditions. You have central Texas, but you also have the Latin influence of South Texas, and then you have the East Texas style, which really descends from the African slaves who arrived in the 1820s and 1830s barbecuing in the south. We have newspaper accounts of enslaved African Americans doing this work.

“I also remind people that the barbecue for two centuries was this: dig a trench, fill it with hard charcoal, and cook whole animals in it. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that it changed profoundly. But this is just another example of how resilient African Americans are: whenever barbecue is redefined, if there isn’t initially a strong presence of African Americans who cook that way, with time, blacks adjust and, say, make breasts if that’s what customers want. “

Miller delves into the past to preserve the future of black barbecue. He names Rodney Scott, the South Carolina pitmaster renowned for his whole pork prowess who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2018. (Scott also recently published a cookbook, “Rodney Scott’s Barbecue World,” written with Lolis Eric Elie.)

Chicago barbecue

Burnt pork belly at the ends of Old Arthur’s in Chicago, owned by pit master Eudell Watts IV.

(Adrien Miller)

Noting the decline in black-owned barbecue restaurants in urban areas across the country, he writes: “This is probably the long-term result of a combination of factors – the steady attrition of catering businesses, a young generation indifferent to continue the barbecue stick having passed through their parents, and gentrification driving black businesses out of black neighborhoods.

As with everything in our culinary culture, the situation is changing. Miller was finishing the book’s edits as the pandemic spread around the world. In our conversation, he focused on the circumstances facing so many of those who feed us: finding an audience without the ballast of a permanent place.

“There are far fewer physical places run by African Americans. The businesses that I know that have closed had a great capacity for catering. It’s unfortunate, ”he said. “But you know, we have a lot of food trucks. Just watch the siblings on the side of the road and in the parking lots doing their thing. Strangely enough, a lot of black entrepreneurs may have been ready for COVID. They were already focused on take out due to lack of capital or other reasons. “

The importance of the moment brings to mind his next Miller project: it leans towards a story of African-American street vendors.

This week Ben Mims launches a four-part series, “LA in a jar” with recipes and techniques to preserve the taste of summer with stone fruit jam. (And if you don’t want to make your own, there is a list of his favorite local jam brands.)

I review Mandi’s house, a Yemeni restaurant in the “Little Arabia” district of Anaheim serving lamb and chicken half buried in spicy rice (the namesake dish, mandi) and stews bubbling volcanically in a way reminiscent of dubu soon rushing to the table in Korean restaurants. Check it out.

Jenn harris is on the cover of Las Vegas: she shares a plain pasta worth the trip alone and guides you to the best cocktails.

Finally: Two former chefs of Trois Mec launch a pop-up sandwich … and other news from Jean Trinh.

A selection of stone fruits (plums, pluots, nectarines, apricots and peaches), some cut, others whole, in bowls

A selection of stone fruits (plums, pluots, nectarines, apricots and peaches), ideal for making Ben Mims stone fruit jam.

(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

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