Adrian Miller wrote what he believes is the first comprehensive book on the history and culture of soul food.Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Press
By Peter Jones
One can tell a lot about a people and their history by their food – and African American cuisine is no exception.
Just ask Adrian Miller, whose new book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time charts the history of black American cooking from the shores of west Africa to the urban soul food centers that continue to serve the often-controversial cuisine of American slaves.
“If you really go deeper into the history of soul food, it’s really the food of migrants from the Deep South taken to different parts of the country,” said Miller, a 1987 graduate of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora.
Miller took up the challenge of tracing soul food’s history and launching its spirited defense after realizing the story had never really been told in a comprehensive way.
“I had no qualifications, except for eating it a lot,” the attorney and sometime politico said.
Miller will lead a cooking demonstration and tasting on Feb. 12 at Smoky Hill Library in Centennial. His book will be available for sale.
When the author is not telling the rich history of collared greens and chitlins, he works as the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. He previously served as a special assistant to President Clinton and as deputy legislative director for Gov. Bill Ritter.
Smoky Hill High School graduate Adrian Miller has written a comprehensive history of soul food. He speaks at Smoky Hill Library in Centennial next week. Photo courtesy of Arapahoe Library District
His next book will be a history of black cooks in the White House.
During February’s Black History Month, The Villager recently spoke with Miller about the saga of one of America’s least appreciated cuisines.
Villager: Should we be surprised that a lawyer who grew up in the Denver suburbs is an expert on soul food?
Miller: When I tell people I’m from Denver, I immediately lose street cred on the subject, but this is how I win people back. My mom is from Chattanooga, Tenn., and my dad is from Helena, Ark. As Southern transplants, they were people who did not distance themselves from these foods. They actually embraced them so I grew up eating these foods. We’d have grains, black-eyed peas, cornbread, ham hocks and beans, neck bones and rice, smothered chicken and catfish.
Villager: Many hear the words “soul food” and cower. Is the historic food of slaves and poverty-stricken Southern blacks as unhealthy as we would assume?
Miller: Parts of it are unhealthy. A lot of the things we associate with soul food – fried chicken, peach cobbler, chitlins – were celebration foods. These were not meant to be eaten several times a week. As we have prospered as a society, people are eating the celebration foods of their culture much more often, and you see that across cultures. But if you actually look at what enslaved people were eating a couple centuries ago, it’s closer to what we call vegan today. They were eating seasonal vegetables – not a lot of meat or processed ingredients. If you look at what nutritionists are telling us to eat, they say eat dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, legumes, fish – those are all the building blocks of soul food.
Villager: Some aspects of the cuisine can be traced to Africa?
Miller: Yes, one example is eating greens. Leafy greens are central to a lot of west African diets. You see substitution because they were moving from a tropical climate to a temperate climate. That’s why collards, turnip greens, kale, mustard greens and cabbage are so popular within the soul food tradition. Also being coastal people, a lot of west Africans had fish in their diet – and even to this day African Americans eat more fish proportionately than other ethnic groups.
Villager: It is hard to imagine how a cuisine came out of slave rations.
Miller: It was up to the slaves to figure out how to survive on their weekly rations. That’s where the cuisine element starts to develop. For the most part, master and slave were eating out of the same pot. Mac and cheese, chitlins and sweet potato pie were at one point all royalty foods. It just shows you the social mobility of food. At one point, lobster was slave food because lobster was so plentiful to the point that the slaves were complaining about getting too much lobster. Slaves typically worked from early Monday morning until about noon on Saturday. They got the rest of Saturday and Sunday off. That’s when you start to see the higher-end cooking. That’s why you have this tradition of the Saturday night fish fry.
Villager: When did the term “soul food” come into play historically?
Miller: In the South, people just called it dinner. Soul food was a religious term for centuries. It meant doing anything to edify your spiritual life. In the 1940s, you have all these African American jazz artists taking their music to the black churches. They started calling that gospel sound “soul,” and the word starts to get slapped on other aspects of black culture. By the 1950s, soul food was solidified as a term for food.
Villager: What are you favorite soul dishes?
Miller: The two things I love are mixed greens – and usually I do mustard greens with turnip greens – and smoked turkey. And then I love making black-eyed peas with ham hock.
Villager: Do you prepare soul food yourself?
Miller: I’m typically eating broiled fish and a salad. But when I entertain, I make soul food. Even though I’m casting myself as a culinary historian, a lot of people expect me to be a next-level cook, so I always have to raise my game, you know.
Villager: Do you veer toward more healthy variations or do you keep with tradition, whether it’s healthy or not?
Miller: I make traditional stuff so I can keep the skills up, but often when I’m entertaining I lighten it up. The best example is making greens with smoked turkey, instead of ham hocks – or just purely vegetarian greens. The most energy right now is in upscale soul food. Fried chicken and waffles is showing up everywhere. Butter and lard are making a tremendous comeback. What people are finding is that our bodies can recognize those things, rather than partially hydrogenated whatever.
Villager: What about this ambiguous “red drink.” What’s up with that?
Miller: Perfectly asked (laughs). I personally believe red Kool-Aid is the official soul food drink, although I’m noticing there’s some generational shift going on. A lot of the young’uns like purple drink. Typically, it’s some kind of cherry tropical punch or strawberry drink. It can be carbonated or not. There are actually two red drinks that came from west Africa through the slave trade. One of them is cola. Another is called hibiscus. In a lot of the accounts I’ve looked at in the newspaper from the 1870s on, whenever large groups of African Americans were getting together there was usually some kind of red drink in the mix.
Villager: What’s the best soul food restaurant in Denver?
Miller: I have three spots to recommend. The first is Cora Faye’s. The second would be Welton Street Café in Five Points and the third would be Kirk’s Soul Kitchen in Aurora.
A plate of soul food staples, including fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collared greens and fried okra. Courtesy photo
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