Top | The Culinate Interview

Adrian Miller

(article, Ruth Tobias)

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p(blue). Educated at Stanford and Georgetown, lawyer Adrian Miller is the former deputy director of President Clinton’s Initiative for One America. Today he's a senior policy analyst in the outgoing administration of Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, under whom he spearheads the state's Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. 

p(blue). But Miller's spare time has been devoted to a different sort of food politics. He was certified as a judge by the Kansas City Barbecue Society in 2004, served on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance from 2003 to 2009, and is awaiting publication of his newly completed book, a comprehensive history (with recipes) of soul food, to be published by the University of North Carolina press. 

p(blue). Ten years in the making, the soul-food project was inspired by John Egerton’s observation, in his 1985 book [%amazonProductLink "Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History" asin=0807844179], that “the tribute to black cooks has yet to be written.” Miller says, “I’ve been on a journey ever since.” 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Adrian Miller"]

One of the basic premises of your forthcoming book is that soul food is largely misconceived. How do you define the term?
A dictionary would probably define “soul food” as the traditional foods of Southern African-Americans. With a nod to the late great Edna Lewis, I think soul food is better understood as the cuisine of African-Americans living in urban areas who are nostalgic for rural areas of the Deep South. 

It’s mainly outside the South that people even call it soul food; within the South, people will call it Southern or country cooking as quickly as they’ll call it soul, especially if they’re of a certain generation. The term has really been a brilliant marketing tool \[of the civil-rights era\].

That’s the short and sweet answer. Another layer is that soul food is a limited repertoire of the foods of the American South, a hodgepodge of poverty foods — chitlins, neckbones, bitter greens — and special-occasion foods like fried chicken, breads, and desserts made with white flour.

So soul food is essentially an urban variant of the broader category of traditional Southern cuisine, one that capitalizes on black identification? Can you trace its trajectory for us?
Hearkening back to the plantation, we see that it was generally those African-Americans who were working in the big house who were in a position to get leftovers. There was a separate feeding system that fed the field slaves, who were eating a very controlled diet. 

Typically they got rations once a week: a peck of cornmeal, a couple of pounds of smoked pork, and some molasses that, depending on the master, would be supplemented with seasonal vegetables. Sometimes the masters would only give the bare amount that they had to by law, and the slaves were required to supplement their diet — growing their own food, hunting, and fishing, which they would do on the weekends.

A typical day is you got up before sunrise, you ate a meal of cornmeal and buttermilk mixed together, and then you had to go to work in the fields until noon or so. These were the big meals for what we basically call lunch, where you had a big pot of greens and meat that went to the adults; the potlikker went to the kids. Typically they were fed in a trough. And then you had to work until after sundown, when you could have supper, which was usually cold cornbread and potlikker, something like that. In a technical sense, there was leisure time for cooking stuff, but you’d just get tired, right? 

So a lot of what we think of as soul food has its origins in a plantation diet that was primarily vegan, with meat used for seasoning. Other soul-food items like fried chicken, biscuits, the pies, the cakes — those were things that were only on special occasions, Sundays and holidays.

To complicate things, when Africans were brought here, they were taken to a lot of different places, and one reason that I say that soul food is mistakenly applied to all African-American cuisine is that several subregional American cuisines were heavily influenced by African-Americans. 

First is the Chesapeake Bay area — the eastern shore of Virginia to the eastern shore of Maryland. Canvasback duck, oysters, and terrapin were the high-class dishes for a very long time. We overexploited that area, so I think that cuisine basically just disappeared. 

Then there’s the low country — the Atlantic seaboard from the southern part of Virginia all the way down to Jacksonville, Florida. This is one of the few places in the British colonies where blacks really outnumbered whites, and this is the one place where you see African dishes survive \[relatively intact\]: dishes like hoppin’ john. The original recipe calls for red peas, but eventually black-eyed peas were a substitute. That kind of mixture is very West African, Senegalese, and Gambian. Okra and rice, sometimes called limpin’ susan, and pilaus. 

A third area is the lower Mississippi Valley, what we could call Creole or Cajun. Yes, I know black people who call themselves Cajun. Again, a lot of rice was grown there, and there was a strong African presence. And Louisiana’s interesting because a lot of the Africans there had spent time in the Caribbean.

And then the last area is the Deep South. This is where cotton was grown; this is the swath of land that includes the western parts of Virginia and the Carolinas, sweeping through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. The food we call soul food is really only traceable to that part of the country. After emancipation, the great exodus happened and people started leaving in droves; it was the people in those areas who migrated \[in greater numbers\] to other parts of the country and took these foods with them. 

This is the critical moment for soul food, because in the cities, they couldn’t get everything they got in the countryside. In the South, they were eating a ton of greens — oakleaf, cabbages, watercress. A ton of beans they were eating: purple hulls, crowder peas, field peas. But in urban areas, all fish was suddenly catfish. All beans were black-eyed peas. All greens were turnips, collards, mustards, maybe kale. It became a kind of standardized menu.

Moreover, even though urban blacks tended to be poor, they were still doing better than those in the South, so some of the foods that had been celebration foods — fried chicken, biscuits, cakes made with white flour — they started to have more access to. 

You’ve got restaurants, you’ve got all these places that are serving you food as a matter of convenience. That’s where you start to see the African-American diet move toward the mainstream American diet, with meat and potatoes rather than a heavily vegetarian \[core\]. It’s the same thing that any other immigrant experienced — you can eat better than you did in the Old Country. More meat, more fat, more sugar. 

Meanwhile, the term “soul” starts getting kicked around in the music world of the 1940s. This is the era of the big band, when mainly white musicians were making all the money and getting most of the publicity. So guys like Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, were sitting around thinking, “OK. We need to return this music back to its roots.” 

And the root, the soul, is in the rural South. At first the term is mainly applies to jazz. But as it gains currency, because we live in a corporate commodity culture, it starts getting applied to everything black. By the 1960s, when soul food becomes a fad, the old distinctions have been washed away; people are just thinking about the standardized menu. 

That’s quite a story. What sort of future does a cuisine so rooted in historical circumstance, tradition, and — to use your word — nostalgia have, in your view? Where does it go from here?
I think the future’s tricky, for a couple of reasons. First, soul food is one of the few authentically home-based cuisines that’s out there in the public imagination. When you go to a soul-food restaurant, you’re thinking, OK, this is something black people serve in their houses. I’m troubled by that, because it seems to me that fewer and fewer people are cooking at home. So is soul food going to be a museum piece in the future, where basically you have to go to a restaurant to get home cooking? It’s a bit of a historical irony.

Second, there are the health consequences. Even though soul food is about nostalgia, I think it’s good that it’s being reinterpreted. There’s vegan soul food, health-conscious neo-soul food. People are using smoked turkey as a substitute for pork; they’re getting really complex flavors by combining vegetable profiles in a way that’s interesting. I think it may catch on. 

OK, so before soul food either fossilizes or shape-shifts, on which classic dishes would you wish a wider acceptance?
Chitlins, \[aka chitterlings, or pig intestines\]. It’s probably the most divisive dish on the soul-food plate. It’s one of these things where — well, as one joke goes, you don’t eat anyone else’s chitlins unless you really know them. Because you have to clean them, right? It’s not for everybody; it’s a delicacy. But if people are eating Rocky Mountain oysters . . . if they understood what it meant for the culture, I think they’d appreciate chitlins more.

Then there are foods that have disappeared, and there’s just no reason for it. Like black-eyed pea cakes. In Africa, a lot of countries have black-eyed pea fritters, called akara._ They came across the Atlantic, they show up in a lot of Caribbean and South and Central American places, but not here. I’ve found some old recipes from some restaurants in Virginia, but they’re just not made that much anymore. 

Another dish that I like to talk about is “possum and taters,” or roast opossum with sweet potatoes. That was the celebration dish for African-Americans. Now we’re just too far removed from the countryside.

p(bio). Ruth Tobias is a Denver-based food writer; her portfolio and blog, Denveater, can be found at her website.

reference-image, l