Adrian Miller couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Back in 2004, he found himself watching a Paula Deen special about Southern barbecue. By the time its credits rolled, he’d seen not a single Black barbecue chef had profiled. “An hourlong special with no Black people at all,” he said. “And you know, that’s just crazy.”
Until recently, the oversight would likely have been inconceivable, said Miller, a Beard Award-winning writer of food history and author of a new book called “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”
Stretching back to Colonial times when enslaved Africans were most often in charge of the pits, Black barbecue cooks had been regarded as the most skilled practitioners of the art during most of America’s history, Miller said.
In a conversational and voluminously researched tome spiked with recipes and profiles of Black chefs, Miller documents Southern barbecue from its beginnings in Virginia, where Native American pit cooking techniques were married to European preferences and adapted according to the palates of its West African cooks.
Barbecue spread with slavery across the South. And after the Civil War, it became a coveted skill and a way for formerly enslaved people to earn a living, not just in the South but all over the country. Until a few decades ago, Miller said, a discussion of barbecue without Black chefs would have seemed just plain “weird.”
“People of a certain age, if you were asking what was their first taste of barbecue at a restaurant — and I’m talking about across the country — they would probably say an African American guy,” Miller said.
Yet as barbecue’s profile rose precipitously in recent decades — riding an updraft from the newfound popularity of Central Texas brisket — Black barbecue chefs were rarely seen nor heard from in significant media.
Granted, barbecue media has seen a correction in the past few years. In 2015, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn wrote that his publication’s obsession with brisket codified by the “legendary, mostly white-owned, joints of Central Texas” had caused him to overlook the chicken and spiced beef links of century-old, Black-owned Patillo’s in Beaumont, Texas.
This year, South Carolina’s Rodney Scott became one of the first Black pitmasters in decades to get a major book deal. Netflix series “High on the Hog” documents African influences on the barbecue.
Miller’s “Black Smoke” offers a comprehensive argument for Black barbecue chefs’ place at the smoker and an ode to a history that’s largely been buried. We asked him how barbecue media got whitewashed and what goes missing when you remove Black pitmasters from the conversation. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So what gets lost when the media overlooks Black barbecue?
At first, I didn’t think it was that big a deal. But it now has economic consequences. People are now being told that the white aesthetic is the only authentic and legitimate one.
Central Texas is a really great example of this. When you think Central Texas barbecue, you probably only hear about the white guys. You know, Central Texas has been gentrified. You have these very Instagrammable, perfectly manicured slices of beef brisket. I would argue that Central Texas barbecue has become the default barbecue style in the United States.
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I think a couple things are going on. One is the international influence of (Texas Monthly’s) Daniel Vaughn. And then it’s (Austin-based barbecue star) Aaron Franklin, the most recognizable barbecue guy on the planet.
You get customers walking into Black-owned joints, which traditionally have done other forms of barbecue. And people are asking for (Kansas City) burnt ends and brisket. And if they don’t see it on the menu, they walk out.