Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, is the latest book from Adrian Miller, a former political policy adviser and current food writer and historian. Black Smoke details the role of black cooks and chefs in the development of barbecue, and how as barbecue has become a more global phenomenon, white chefs, businesses, and media have been erasing the role of blacks in the development and preservation of barbecue.
Miller is a James Beard award winner, and worked as a consultant on Netflix’s Chef ‘s Table BBQ.
A couple of years ago, I reviewed Michael W. Twitty’s,The Cooking Gene. Since then I have developed a reading interest in the role of African Americans on the development of American cuisine. I first came to know of Miller through Twitter. He features there as @soulfoodscholar. Most of our limited interaction has been around the sort of food gifts one receives from women in the church, and church meals in general.
When it comes to barbecue, I will admit I know very little on the subject. I only know of two Winnipeg restaurants specializing in barbecue: Lovey’s (now closed), and Danny’s Whole Hog. There is Blue Haze BBQ out in Beasejour, which I haven’t tried. The Up South BBQ truck, and BBK. Those two are mobile. That’s all I can think of, but feel free to let me know if there are more that I should try.
Despite this, I really enjoy ribs and pulled pork, two dishes often associated with barbecue. I also follow some of the trends around barbecue. That’s what actually made me pick this books up. I saw the advertisements for Nashville Hot Chicken sandwiches at A & W, and wondered, how could I compare that to the original, when I had no idea about the original.
I’m not sure Black Smoke has solved that dilemma for me. However, it has given me a much greater understanding about barbecue, the role of African Americans in barbecue, and the role of barbecue in the life of Black Americans. In doing so, Miller goes back to the roots of barbecue and brings it up to the present day.
One of the things about the book that really caught my eye, was a land acknowledgement right at the start of the first chapter. This is not a mere formality, but is followed on by Miller’s contention, that the roots of American barbecue are largely Indigenous.
The original inhabitants of the United States were practicing forms of cooking very similar to what developed into what we know as barbecue. Along with this Europeans, most notably the British who settled in the Virginia area brought there spit roasting techniques along to contribute to the development of barbecue.
Black Smoke then moves on to show how barbecue became synonymous with African Americans. Two things stand out about this. One, how those in power used barbecue to diminish the status of African Americans. Two, how the same barbecue became a source of independence and freedom for many African Americans.
As a priest I found the chapter on church life and barbecue fascinating. Especially how many churches used barbecue as a way of keeping themselves going. With the effects of Covid, churches may need to consider doing such things again.
Along with the history of barbecue, Miller dives into the diversity of barbecue. Delivering mouth-watering descriptions of regional barbecue styles. These range from discussions of which meat to use, to the development of sauces. Spoiler alert: They didn’t always have ketchup.
This is one book where I have yet to test out any of the recipes. They are all fairly complex and tend to be time consuming. This is one area where contemporary barbecue culture has changed from the traditional. Barbecue was, on the whole, traditionally whole animal cooking.
Black Smoke to White Smoke
One theme that runs through the book is how white Americans have continually sought to take credit for the barbecue created African Americans. In earlier times, there is simply a tendency to ignore the role of the African Americans in making possible the feasts associated with Southern Hospitality.
The movement away from barbecue from whole animal cooking to barbecue being about cooking specific cuts is one of the factors that helped this change along. That made barbecue more accessible. It also allowed large corporations to gain a bigger foothold, and change the focus of barbecue from an African American style of cookery, to one that is now largely promoted by white bros.
More recently, the power, and influence of white, male producers of television, and other media has tended to shunt black voices to the sideline. Much in the same way, as Miller points out, that women are shunted to the sideline once males, particularly white males, get involved in their industry. Black Smoke takes time to work through some of the complexities associated with these practices. The chapter on Barbecue contests gives the best view of these problems.
The real highlight of Black Smoke, are the sections that Miller calls sidebars. These are the biographical features on several important African Americans. Even the way they are interlaced within the text of the book forces you to step away from the overarching narrative and take time to focus on the people as individuals.
Much of the material recounting the historical injustices surrounding barbecue and the lives of African Americans could just be a litany of arguments gone over many times. The sidebars put flesh and blood on the people whose lives were changed by their connection to barbecue. Not only how their lives were changed, but how their communities were changed as well.
A Hopeful Book
Many things make Black Smoke an enjoyable read. One is that Miller, while having done very thorough research on the subject of barbecue, doesn’t get bogged down in the numbers and details. He is a well researched storyteller, and it is the storytelling that carries the book along. Why should we care about African Americans and the history of barbecue? Well, because it’s the story of people, just like you and me.
Another strong suit of Black Smoke is the element of hope in the book. The story of African Americans and their role in the promotion and preservation of barbecue may have been reduced to embers in the barbecue fire. However, Miller sees these embers and desires to work with others to help fan them back into a flame that will allow African American barbecuers to continue on with their tradition.