Adrian Miller on Soul Food
Adrian Miller is a very accomplished guy. As a lawyer, he served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and was a senior policy analyst for Colorado governor Bill Ritter. As one of the country’s top experts on soul food, he’s the author of three books, one of which, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, won a James Beard Foundation Award. His most recent book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, will be available Spring 2021. Like we said – very accomplished.
Adrian walked our residents through the traditions and history of soul food at our Explorer Experience event and shared with us some of his favorite memories of this iconic cuisine.
So what is soul food?
Soul food is one of the traditional cuisines of African Americans. Typical foods include fried chicken, fried fish, chitterlings (pig intestines), black-eyed peas, candied yams, collard greens, kale, mustard and turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread.
How is that different from just southern cuisine?
There is an overlap of ingredients and culinary techniques, but soul food differs from southern food in terms of performance. Soul food tends to be more intensely flavored, heavily seasoned, especially with piquant spices like cayenne pepper, and rely more on the use of variety meats for flavor when compared to southern food. With soul food, the lines between savory and sweet are blurred more often. A great example of this is putting sugar in cornbread.
We know it’s delicious but why is it interesting?
It’s one of the earliest fusion cuisines in the Americas, blending the ingredients and culinary traditions of the Americas, West Africa, and Western Europe. It’s sometimes negatively labeled “poverty food” or “slave food,” but when examined closely, many of the soul food dishes that are considered “lowly,” at one time were high class food, even royalty food, at some point in European history—dishes like chitterlings, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie.
When and how did you begin researching soul food?
I started my research in 2001. I had just finished my stint in the Clinton White House, and the job market was slow, so I ended up watching far too much daytime television. I’m not even going to tell you what shows I watched. In the depth of my depravity, I said to myself, “I should read something.” I went to a local bookstore and came upon a book written by John Egerton titled Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. Early in that book, Egerton wrote (something to the effect of): The tribute to black achievement in American cookery has yet to be written. That intrigued me. I emailed Egerton to see if it was still true. After all, I was reading it fourteen years after it was published. He confirmed that the challenge had not, yet, been fully accepted. So, with no qualifications at all, except for eating a lot of soul food, and cooking it some, my journey began.
In all of your research, what was your biggest discovery?
I had previously bought wholesale the narrative that soul food was a cuisine created especially for Black people from the food that white people didn’t want. I was shocked to find that food traditions differed more based on class and place rather than race. For the most part, Blacks and Whites of the same socioeconomic class ate the same foods. Race was a factor in keeping them from eating these foods together. So, soul food’s dominant narrative is incomplete.
What’s it like being one of the leading experts on a folk tradition, where countless grandmothers can challenge you?
Ha! Yes, I definitely feel like I have more to prove, especially as a Black man who grew up in the Denver metropolitan area, not in the American South. On top of that, I’m not a professional cook. I’ve earned my stripes and burnished my reputation by doing top notch research. The more that I learned, I knew that I would challenge long-held beliefs about soul food. I had to back up what I argued with solid evidence. I had to show the receipts, so to speak.
How has soul food evolved in recent years?
I’ve seen several trends emerge from traditional soul food. The most prominent is the development of “health conscious” or “down home healthy” soul food. The opposite trend has been “upscale soul.” This trend places an emphasis on the use of expensive ingredients like heritage meat, heirloom vegetables, and exotic spices. The hottest trend in soul food is vegan. If someone knows how to season, even carnivores won’t miss the meat.
What’s the best soul food experience you’ve ever had?
I keep thinking about a place in Jackson, Mississippi called Bully’s Soul Food. It’s home cooking at its best in a restaurant context. Such fantastic food. There’s a table off the main dining room, and periodically, someone on staff comes out and strips greens and peels sweet potatoes.
What’s the most extra soul food you’ve ever had?
Most Thanksgivings while growing up! My late mother, Johnetta Miller, was a great cook. Her spread had roast turkey, ham, chitterlings, coleslaw, greens, candied yams, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, seven-layer salad, Watergate salad, fruit salad, macaroni and cheese, rice pilaf, rolls, lemon icebox pie, and sweet potato pie. You can see why I got a little extra!
What advice do you have for a beginner soul food cook?
I suggest starting with the vegetable dishes like mixed greens and black-eyed peas. They’re good for you, easy to make, and taste just as good if you make them as a vegetarian dish as they would with the smoked pork parts.
You sit down with a plate of pork ribs, collard greens and cornbread. What music do you put on?
That depends. If I’m by myself, I’ll put on pop music from the 1980s or hip hop. If it’s a romantic occasion, I play something appropriate for the status of our relationship. Perhaps From Q with Love by Quincy Jones if it’s early in the relationship. If things are pretty far along, then definitely Barry White or Luther Vandross.
Adrian Miller is a food writer, attorney, and certified barbecue judge. His first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the James Beard Foundation Award for Scholarship and Reference in 2014. He also authored The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas.