‘Black Smoke’: New book gives Blacks their due for barbecue

A postcard from the early 1900s shows African Americans cooking barbecue. They were profoundly associated with the craft from the beginning. (Collection of Jim Auchmutey)
Caption
A postcard from the early 1900s shows African Americans cooking barbecue. They were profoundly associated with the craft from the beginning. (Collection of Jim Auchmutey)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Adrian Miller first noticed what he came to regard as the whitewashing of barbecue more than a decade ago. He tuned in to the Food Network for a Paula Deen special about Southern barbecue and was astounded at hour’s end to realize that all the people interviewed on camera were white. The only African Americans pictured were working in the background.

“What the heck?” Miller recalls thinking. “I don’t like to cuss, but I felt like it. It’s like the Black people were just b-roll.”

Miller writes about culinary history from his home in Denver, where he works as executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches (which probably explains the cussing thing). He soon noticed that the Paula Deen oversight was part of a pattern. There was the Bon Appetit cover about who’s who in barbecue with an illustration showing 19 white faces. And the Fox News list of the most influential people in barbecue, none of whom were Black.

“It was so weird to see African Americans shut out like that,” he says.

Miller resolved to correct the picture in his latest book, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” published in April by the University of North Carolina Press. It continues an exploration of Black cooking that began with his 2013 book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine,” which won an award from the James Beard Foundation.

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Adrian Miller, author of "Black Smoke," does some delicious research at Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston, S.C. (Courtesy of Adrian Miller)
Caption
Adrian Miller, author of "Black Smoke," does some delicious research at Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston, S.C. (Courtesy of Adrian Miller)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

I first met Miller when he was researching that volume and we got together for lunch at the Busy Bee Cafe in West End to talk about the differences between soul food and Southern country cooking. Over a plate of fried chicken, I asked how he was going to deal with barbecue. “That’s a whole other book,” he said, laughing. He didn’t want barbecue’s curly tail to wag the soul food dog.

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One of the beautiful things about barbecue is that so many groups have contributed to it yet it belongs to none of them exclusively. Still, it’s an undeniable fact that African Americans are intimately interwoven with its history in good and bad ways. I wrestled with that contradiction in my 2019 book, “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” and addressed it directly in a chapter titled “The Color of ‘Cue.” Miller has devoted an entire book to the ticklish subject.

“So did Black people invent barbecue?” I asked him when we spoke recently, echoing the question that so many had asked me.

His answer held some surprises.

Barbecue’s Black roots

Miller likes to assure people that while he’s a Colorado native, he has the cred to write about Black cooking because of his family’s deep roots in the South. His father came from tenant farmers in Arkansas, and his mother moved west from Chattanooga, where her daddy worked as a cook for the Southern Railway. Miller’s first job was as a busboy and dishwasher at a barbecue place in Denver.

Now 51, he took a circuitous route to food writing. After he graduated from Stanford University, he earned a law degree from Georgetown and worked as a policy analyst for a Colorado governor and as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton with his One America Initiative for racial reconciliation.

He became obsessed with culinary history after he left the White House, getting involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and taking a class with the Kansas City Barbeque Society to become a certified competition judge.

“More people ask me about being a barbecue judge than working in the White House,” he jokes.

To research the history of barbecue and African Americans, Miller consulted hundreds of newspaper articles going back to the 1700s and read more than 3,000 narrative accounts by formerly enslaved people. He encountered a pageant of colorful characters: Marie Jean, an Arkansas woman who was among the first barbecue entrepreneurs in the 1840s; Henry Perry, the steamboat cook who brought Southern barbecue to Kansas City in the early 1900s; “Doc” Hamilton, a notorious figure who ran a barbecue joint and gambling den in Seattle during the 1920s; “Daddy” Bruce Randolph, a barbecue restaurateur in Denver who began a holiday tradition of feeding the homeless like Hosea Williams in Atlanta.

I was especially pleased to meet Thomas Drennon, an Atlanta barbecuer who testified before Congress in 1871 about a frightful visit he had received from the Ku Klux Klan. The nightriders wanted to know whether he was planning to cook a barbecue for a Black political gathering. No, Drennon told them, he always voted the “white ticket.” He meant that the piece of paper he used to vote was white. Clever.

So what about that big question: Who deserves credit for inventing barbecue?

Miller admits in the book that he wanted to claim the glory for his people. “I would love to prove that barbecue has an African origin while simultaneously forming an ‘X’ with my arms across my chest and shouting, ‘Wakanda Forever.’ Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.”

A mural at Sam's Bar-B-Que in Austin, Texas, depicts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a message of brotherhood. (Courtesy of Jim Auchmutey)
Caption
A mural at Sam's Bar-B-Que in Austin, Texas, depicts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a message of brotherhood. (Courtesy of Jim Auchmutey)

Credit: Jim Auchmutey

Credit: Jim Auchmutey

Other culinary historians such as Michael W. Twitty have labored hard to find an African ancestor of barbecue and fervently believe there is one. While there are grilled food traditions in West Africa, Miller does not regard them as true antecedents.

“If you look at the enslaved people who came from West Africa through the 1600s and 1700s,” he says, “there’s really nothing like barbecue that they brought with them.”

Grilling and smoking are part of food cultures worldwide, but the American version — in fact, the word barbecue itself — originated with the Indigenous people on this side of the Atlantic.

“The foundation is Native American,” Miller says. “That surprised me because all I had heard about was Europeans and Africans.”

African Americans hard at work cooking barbecue at the 1895 Cotton States exposition in Atlanta, as portrayed on the cover of Harper's Weekly. (Courtesy of Atlanta History Center)
Caption
African Americans hard at work cooking barbecue at the 1895 Cotton States exposition in Atlanta, as portrayed on the cover of Harper's Weekly. (Courtesy of Atlanta History Center)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

While they may not have brought barbecue to the New World, enslaved Africans had a decisive role in creating the food that came to embody America. That’s because barbecue during the Colonial and antebellum eras was not cooked on backyard smokers or in restaurants, which barely existed until the 1800s. In its formative stage, barbecue was a celebration food served at community and plantation socials at places like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the enslaved almost always did the cooking.

“So they didn’t invent barbecue,” Miller says, “but they developed it, and how they did it is the basis of what we understand as barbecue.”

Cultural differences

At a UNC Press fundraiser a few years ago, the author John Grisham asked Miller the topic of his next book. Hearing that it was about African American barbecue, he asked incredulously what the difference was between Black and white barbecue.

Miller’s reply: “Black barbecue tastes better.”

He was joking, of course. African American barbecue can be just as good or bad as anyone’s. While barbecue doesn’t vary that much by race, Miller has discerned a few cultural differences. One of the biggest is the attitude toward sauce.

“There’s been this emerging conventional wisdom that good barbecue should be unsauced because you should be able to taste the meat by itself,” he says.

“Speaking for African Americans, I’d ask, ‘Says who?’ At a lot of Black barbecue places, the sauce is every bit as important as the meat. I’ve been to places where the plate is a sea of sauce with a few islands of meat poking out. The sauce is the signature.”

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Other differences he’s noticed: Black barbecuers are more likely to use charcoal, to cook quickly, to char the meat. Black barbecue places tend to serve soul food sides like greens, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese (although a lot of white places are now doing the same, as any Atlanta barbecue lover knows). And the presentation isn’t usually as neat as those Texas-style metal trays that have sprung up everywhere.

“There’s no nice way to say this,” Miller says, “but Black barbecue tends to be messier. You’ve got these Styrofoam trays overflowing with meat and sauce.”

The messiness is especially pronounced when it comes to ribs, he adds, with Black barbecuers rarely trimming the tips for that tidy St. Louis cut.

To me, ribs are one of the key indicators of barbecue differences between the races. Before they became part of the repertoire, ribs were hard to find at white barbecue joints in the South, which typically specialized in chopped pork. They were much more characteristic of Black places like the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack or Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven, to name a couple of now-closed Atlanta icons.

I told Miller about a 2004 interview I did with Hank Aaron for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his post-baseball life as a car dealer and franchisee with Krispy Kreme, Church’s and Popeyes. When I asked how he got into the restaurant business, Aaron related his first experience shortly after the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966: Hammerin’ Hank’s, a barbecue place in southwest Atlanta that was supposed to be the flagship of a chain but fizzled because his white partners didn’t know their customers.

“They wanted to sell chopped barbecue,” Aaron said. “I told them there wasn’t any such thing in this neighborhood; you had to put meat on the bone — ribs. They didn’t listen to me, and they went out of business.”

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The portrayal of pitmasters

For most of its history, the popular image of barbecue has been distinctly Southern and Black. If you look at newspapers from a century ago, Black barbecuers loomed large in stories about the food. The Atlanta Constitution in 1909 carried ads for the Georgia Barbecue Sauce Co., the first known commercial brand, with a drawing of a white-bearded Black man tending a pit. It’s a rather benign image, but many other barbecue depictions from that era were offensively stereotypical.

Ads for the Georgia Barbecue Sauce Co. ran in The Atlanta Constitution in 1909. (AJC archives)
Caption
Ads for the Georgia Barbecue Sauce Co. ran in The Atlanta Constitution in 1909. (AJC archives)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The picture started to change during the 1990s when interest in barbecue boomed and the people behind the trend — chefs, foodies, competition cooks — were overwhelmingly white.

“You saw more and more white guys presented as the barbecue experts, and not nearly as many Black guys,” Miller says.

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I wondered whether his critique really held true for Atlanta. After all, we have a good many Black barbecue places — Lake & Oak, Thompson Brothers, Pit Boss, Daddy D’z, the Mustard Seed, etc. — and some of them have received ample recognition. I wanted to hear what local pitmasters thought about Miller’s argument, so I phoned a couple of them.

Anna Phelps, who runs Anna’s BBQ in Kirkwood, wasn’t sure she agreed. “I’ve gotten plenty of attention,” she said, mentioning several articles and best-of-Atlanta rankings, “but maybe that’s because I’m a woman, and women in barbecue are still kind of unusual.”

But Bryan Furman, most recently of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, understood exactly what Miller meant. “It isn’t just barbecue,” he said. “Black people don’t get credit for a lot of things in American culture.”

Bryan Furman's hands slicing ribs on the cover of "Black Smoke" by Adrian Miller.
Caption
Bryan Furman's hands slicing ribs on the cover of "Black Smoke" by Adrian Miller.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Furman has more than a passing interest in “Black Smoke.” Those are his hands pictured on the book jacket slicing ribs, from a 2018 cover photo taken by Andrew Thomas Lee for Atlanta magazine. His restaurant, which the publication named as the city’s top barbecue place, burned the following year. He plans to reopen by early 2022 in Atlanta’s Riverside neighborhood at a new location near the previous one and under a new name — Bryan Furman BBQ — with a logo that shows his face prominently.

“I got tired of people walking into my restaurant and thinking I was a hired cook,” he explained. “I want them to know it’s a Black-owned restaurant, and I’m the owner.”

Another barbecue man who will be opening a restaurant in Atlanta this year, in West End, is Rodney Scott of South Carolina, perhaps the nation’s most honored Black pitmaster. Scott became the second barbecue cook to win a James Beard Award in competition with fine-dining chefs (Aaron Franklin of Austin was the first) and published a cookbook this spring, “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ,” that his publisher, Clarkson Potter, is touting as the first by a Black pitmaster.

Rodney Scott on the cover of his new cookbook, "Rodney Scott's World of BBQ."
Caption
Rodney Scott on the cover of his new cookbook, "Rodney Scott's World of BBQ."

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Miller believes the claim is accurate — and telling. Other African Americans have written barbecue books, including TV weatherman Al Roker and former Black Panther Bobby Seale, but none cooked it for a living. In the meantime, white barbecue savants like Bobby Flay and Steven Raichlen have published a shelf full of cookbooks.

Maybe, Miller says, Black pitmasters are finally starting to get more credit.

“I’m much more hopeful now than when I began the book. When I started out, I thought I was going to end it with an elegy. A lot of classic Black barbecue places have closed in the past 25 years. But there are so many other places that have risen up in their place, and now you have Black barbecuers doing food trucks and pop-ups and catering. There’s a resiliency there.”

Miller might not have always found the answers he wanted, but he found an ending he could feel good about.

“The future of Black barbecue,” he says, “is great.”

Jim Auchmutey is a former staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the author of “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America” (UGA Press, 2019).

AUTHOR APPEARANCES

Adrian Miller will discuss “Black Smoke” in an online talk from the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver at 4 p.m. May 16: tatteredcover.com/event/live-stream-adrian-miller-black-smoke. For a complete list of his book events, visit adrianemiller.com.

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