Denver food writer Adrian Miller loves pork spareribs so much he journeyed to Missouri to become a certified barbecue judge.
“A dream come true,” he wrote in his latest book, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”
When he entered the Kansas City Barbecue Society’s judging classroom, Miller looked around and realized he might wind up wearing an elastic belt.
“I was the only person in the room under ’two fiddy,’” he wrote, referring to the hefty average weight of the student body. “And I was OK with that being my future.”
But as Miller moved around the barbecue competition circuit, he noticed an absence of other Black judges — not to mention contestants. He watched the Food Network’s burgeoning coverage of barbecue, and noticed how few African American chefs were interviewed.
He got another shock in 2018 when he discovered that the first 27 inductees to the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas City included only one Black chef and one Native American.
Soon after, he started work on “Black Smoke.” Published in 2021, it recently won Miller his second James Beard Foundation Book Award.
The birth of barbecue
A self-confessed ‘cue head, Miller has written a loving, humorous and unsparing account of both barbecue history and the contemporary scene, including profiles of Black and Native American pitmasters who should be much better known than they are. He traces the birth of barbecue, exploring West African styles of cooking which traveled to America along with the slave trade and may have influenced barbecue’s spicy seasoning and sauces. Another influence? The Caribbean’s Indigenous people, who cooked plants and small animals on raised platforms over outdoor fires. Their delicious barbacoas gave American barbecue its name.
Native Americans also contributed. In Virginia, early colonists and their enslaved workers encountered local Indians cooking on raised platforms, on rotating spits and over shallow pits. Black cooks learned these techniques and adapted them, adding a powerful dose of hickory smoke.
In the antebellum South, large barbecues became the celebrations of choice for weddings, parties and political rallies. Whole hogs, ox, kid and other animals — including ‘possums and racoons — were smoked over open pits by expert Black cooks, who sat up all night, turning and basting.
“Even though (barbecue’s) roots in pit-style cooking on plantations are well known,” Miller wrote, “it’s largely attributed to the exceptional taste and unique skill of the White pitmasters who have claimed it as their own.”
He faults current media coverage, which tends to glorify White men as the most influential barbecue chefs. Kind of like claiming that Benny Goodman invented jazz.
In “Black Smoke,” Miller re-distributes the credit where it belongs.
From Denver to the White House and back again
The author, who graduated — appropriately enough — from Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, did not expect to become the bard of barbecue. He went on to get a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., serve as a special assistant in the Clinton White House and as a policy analyst for former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.
Despite these prestigious posts, his heart lay elsewhere. He began exploring African American foodways with his first book, “Soul Food: the Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” which won Miller his first James Beard Foundation Book Award in 2014. Three years later he published “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” which introduced readers to the many talented Black chefs, some enslaved, who cooked in the White House.
Although “Black Smoke” has a national perspective, Miller dishes up many choice morsels of Denver barbecue lore. He takes his audience back to the 1880s when a group of Denver businessmen hired Columbus B. Hill, an African American barbecue chef, to cater a picnic for 2,500 people. The meal, Miller wrote, featured pit-smoked “…beef, possum and other tempting delicacies.”
One problem: as Hill’s fame spread, thousands of uninvited guests began showing up at his barbecues.
“…and they were hungry,” Miller noted dryly in “Black Smoke.”
Even for possum.
Miller also profiles Denver’s most beloved pitmaster, “Daddy” Bruce Randolph. The Arkansas native, who started barbecuing as a teen to earn extra money, arrived in Denver in 1960. Daddy Bruce did odd jobs until he could no longer resist the siren call of smoke. He was well into his 60s when he founded Daddy Bruce’s Bar-B-Q in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. His stellar reputation wafted all over town and eventually he became the official caterer of the Denver Broncos. Kind and deeply spiritual, Randolph also began the custom of serving free Thanksgiving dinners to the needy, a Denver tradition that continues today.
Introducing barbecue royalty
In sidebars throughout the book, Miller profiles 20 notable African American and Native American barbecue chefs. The book is also studded with 22 recipes “straight from the pit,” from Old Arthur’s Pork Belly Burnt Ends to Chef Kenny Gilbert’s Alligator Ribs.
There are no ‘possum recipes. But most will not consider this a drawback.
A certified barbecue judge to the core, Miller ends “Black Smoke” by listing his 20 favorite African American barbecue restaurants throughout the country. In 2021, when the book was published, no Denver restaurant made the cut. Still, in the past decade, Denver’s barbecue scene has caught fire and there are now many more contenders. Miller’s website currently lists more than a dozen of his favorite Denver-area barbecue sources, including several Black-owned establishments: Hungry Wolf BBQ in Aurora, Plates by the Pound BBQ also in Aurora and Mississippi Boy Catfish & Ribs in Denver’s Northeast Park Hill neighborhood.
This June, the Mile High City will host the fourth Denver BBQ Festival at Empower Field, a massive cook-off that draws thousands of hungry ‘cue heads. Last year’s 14 competitors included only one Black pitmaster.
But as he surveys the barbecue scene, Miller still finds many reasons for hope. These include the fact that in 2019, the Royal American Barbecue Hall of Fame responded to his criticism about its lack of diversity — and invited him to join the board.