Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.
Monk: Of the barbecue books we’ve covered over the past few years, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” by James Beard Award-winning author and self-proclaimed “Soul Food Scholar” Adrian Miller may just be the most important of them all. In Miller’s approachable writing style, he looks to correct the decades of whitewashing the Black (and even Native American) contribution to the revered American institution of barbecue in a very detailed and heavily researched fashion.
In the first half of his book, Miller corrects the historical narrative starting with Native Americans who laid the foundations of the process of smoking as well as the apparatus to perform it on. Whereas Native Americans were not widely enslaved, that is unfortunately where the Black contribution begins. Miller traces from the slave origins to the rise of the Black barbecue specialists who sometimes did the work without the credit of white barbecue men all the way to the modern black restaurant entrepreneurs like Henry Perry, the “Barbecue King” of Kansas City, Walter Jones of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, AR, and Jack Patillo of Beaumont, TX.
While the first half deals with the past, the second half explores the current climate as it relates to where African Americans sit in regards to restaurants, sauces, competitions and also looks ahead to the future of black barbecue. Rodney Scott, former Top Chef contestant Kenny Gilbert, and Ed and Ryan Mitchell are profiled in depth while Miller takes a pulse of barbecue recognition today through the efforts of other historians and writers such as Michael Twitty and Howard Conyers. Ultimately, he ends in a hopeful place.
Speaking of in-depth profiles, a minor complaint is that they oftentimes come mid-chapter (some times even mid-sentence) without warning or color coding. Once I became accustomed to how they were used, I found that I usually just skipped past and then came back after I finished the chapter. They are important and oftentimes covered newly discovered Black barbecue figures (such as Marie Jean of Arkansas or John “Doc” Hamilton of Seattle) but I wish they were utilized a little differently.
Bravo to Adrian Miller on writing a comprehensive history of the Black contribution to American barbecue. “Black Smoke” is a must read for not only those interested in barbecue history but also American history.