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Coloradan pens ‘love letter’ to Black barbecue cooks

"Soul Food Scholar" Adrian Miller's book "Black Smoke" explores the history of barbecue and African Americans' connection to the beloved cuisine.

COLORADO, USA — Adrian Miller had a revelation watching the Food Network in 2004.

He saw a commercial for Paula Deen’s "Paula's Southern BBQ." He decided to devote 60 minutes to watch the whole show.

“Not one Black person was featured on the show,” Miller said. “Barbecue is an integral part of African American food traditions and a very celebrated part of it.”

Miller decided to take on the challenge. He’d already been working on a book on soul food after quitting a job in politics working in the Clinton White House.

“There’s a lot of stigma associated with African American food,” he said. “A lot of people believe that African American food is just slave food and poverty food and that’s the end of the story so why celebrate that. There are others who think you can celebrate that but this needs a warning label because if you eat this it’s gonna kill you.”

“What we often think of when we talk about soul food is the celebration food of that cuisine. So fried chicken, barbecue, the glorious deserts. That’s stuff that you got on special occasions. For the most part people in the South were eating boiled vegetables. There might be a little meat to season the vegetables.”

Miller set out to write "Black Smoke," a history of Black barbecue. The book has since won a James Beard Book Award and the Colorado Book Award. 

The book traces barbecue's roots back to slavery.

“From A to Z that was usually enslaved African Americans because the hosts of this barbecue wanted all this work done and didn’t want to compensate the workers,” Miller said.

Barbecue was a hot, long and tedious job many white slave owners didn’t want to take part in.

“By the time you get to the mid-19th century, Blackness and barbecue are wedded,” he said. “It’s only towards the turn of the 20th century that you start seeing more and more white men getting involved in barbecue – but still most of those white men who were celebrated had an all-Black labor force.”

Only in recent decades did barbecue become such a white-dominated industry, Miller said.

“For years when Black people dominated it, it was seen as working class food,” he said. “It was certainly something that was appreciated, but it didn’t have the veneer of craft.”

“Barbecue is so lucrative now compared to what it was 30 years ago," he said. "I want that wealth to be shared and that love to be spread.”

Read more about Black barbecue cooks in Miller’s book "Black Smoke."

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