DENVER – For Adrian Miller, it wasn’t enough to simply eat all of the foods he loved. He wanted to research them and their role in the history of African Americans in the U.S.
“I decided to dive in,” Miller said of his journey to explore soul food. That journey lead him across 15 states to 150 different soul food restaurants. Once his journey was done, he had enough material for a book and a self-appointed title: the Soul Food Scholar.
“I read about 500 cookbooks,” he said. “I read about 3,000 interviews with former slaves… because I really care about my subject.”
Miller says soul food has many origins. The most well-know of which was the ingenuity of slaves who were not given the prime meats, fruits, vegetables or other ingredients to create meals.
“We as African Americans took unwanted food or food that was forced upon us and made it something absolutely delicious,” he said.
But Miller identifies soul food as a fusion cuisine too. He book explores a number of different influences from the Americas, Europe and beyond.
“It’s west Africa. It’s Western Europe and it’s also the Americas,” he said also adding Native Americans influenced the cuisine. “Cornbread, for example. Everything we know about corn meal and corn bread came from Native Americans.”
A food that he identifies as the cooking of the “interior south,” Miller says the term soul food had its earliest mention in the works of William Shakespeare. But the name really gained traction when it became connected to soulful styles of music that came about by the 1960s.
“(Terms like) Soul music, soul brother, soul sister (lead to) ‘soul food,’” he said.
The reputation soul food has for being unhealthy, Miller says, is not necessarily fair. Just like any other type of food, he thinks it’s OK to have in moderation.
“Soul food is really the celebration food,” he said. “Celebration food was meant to be eaten every once in a while. When you get to a place where you’re prosperous… you start to eat celebration food more often. And that’s where you start to get the health consequences.”
The self-taught home cook identifies quite the opposite health points as the basis of soul food.
“If you actually look at the roots of soul food, it’s actually quite healthy,” he said. “Think about what nutritionists are telling us to eat nowadays. Dark leafy greens… fish. Okra is a superfood. All of those are the building blocks of soul food.”
Miller knows not every soul food cook is keen on sharing recipes.
“They’re just going to go to the grave with that recipe,” he said.
Often times, in soul food, there are no recipes.
“For the longest time, slaves were not allowed to read or write because that was power,” he said.
“The way African Americans flipped that is they created a pride on being able to cook without a recipe.”
Miller, though, is sharing three of his favorite soul food recipes… including the recipe for his mother’s collard greens. (You can find those recipes below.)
Miller continues to build on his reputation as the Soul Food Scholar, lecturing on the topic in speaking engagements across the country. He’s sold nearly all of the copies of his book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. His next book will explore the role that African American chefs and staffers have played in the White House. Miller should know a thing or two about the White House. He worked in the Clinton administration before switching his focus to food.
As he continues his journey, he also leaves his Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/adrian.miller.564?fref=ts) followers with a trail of tips on finding the best soul food in town. Here are his favorites in Denver:
Cora Faye’s Cafe
2861 Colorado Boulevard
Denver, CO 80207
Kirk’s Soul Kitchen
14107 E. Colfax Avenue (just east of Colfax and I-225)
Aurora, CO 80111
Welton Street Cafe
2736 Welton Street (in the historic Five Points neighborhood)
Denver, CO 80205
Soul Food recipes
Johnetta Miller's Mixed Greens
- A tribute to my late mother, Johnetta Miller.
- Makes 8 servings
- 2 smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey leg or wings (about 1 pound)
- 1 1//2 pounds turnip greens
- 1 1//2 pounds mustard greens
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 2 minced garlic cloves
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- Pinch of baking soda
- Pinch of sugar
- Pinch of salt
How to make:
- Rinse the hocks, leg or wings, place them in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the hocks, leg or wings.
- Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot ham stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.
- Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar, and salt.
- Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.
- If desired, shred smoked turkey meat and mix with greens before serving.
Dried hibiscus flowers should be available in your supermarket produce section or at any market catering to a Latino clientele. This recipe comes courtesy of the College of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service's cookbook Native Recipes that was published in 1978. Makes 2 quarts
- 2 quarts water
- 1 ounce fresh or dried food-grade hibiscus blossoms (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 ounce fresh ginger, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 cup sugar, honey, or agave syrup, or to taste. If you want a tarter drink, use ½ cup of sweetener.
- Juice of 1 fresh lime (about 3 tablespoons)
How to make:
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the ginger, hibiscus, and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Cover and let cool to room temperature. Strain into a large pitcher.
- Stir in the lime juice and refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold.
Summer Peach Crisp
This is a riff on a peach cobbler that I found while flipping through the National Cancer Institute's 1995 publication Down Home Healthy Cookin': Recipes and Healthy Cooking Tips.
Makes 6 servings
- 1//2 cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
- 4 cups peaches (fresh or unsweetened frozen)
- 1 cup blueberries or blackberries (fresh or unsweetened frozen)
- 2//3 cup rolled oats
- 1//3 cup packed brown sugar
- 1//4 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons soft margarine, melted
How to make:
- If using frozen fruit, make sure that it is completely thawed, but don't drain the juice.
- In a medium bowl, combine sugar, flour, and lemon peel; mix well.
- Add peaches and berries; stir to mix.
- Spoon into a 6-cup baking dish.
- In a small bowl, combine oats, brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon.
- Add melted margarine; stir to mix.
- Sprinkle topping over filling.
- Bake in a 375°F oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until filling is bubbly and top is brown.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
(© 2016 KUSA)