Arthur Watts, who in 1837 was born into enslavement on the outskirts of Kansas City, made barbecue his business after he was freed. The celebrated open pit cook, who was partial to sliced pork shoulder, for decades oversaw an annual Hog Festival feast in his adopted hometown of Kewanee, Ill.
To feed the thousands who thronged the party, Watts needed about 100 gallons of sauce. But he also had to mind a 240-square-foot trench and supervise the pitchfork-wielding workers assigned to flip the shoulders cooking over it, so he outsourced sauce-making to two branches of his family.
One set of relatives combined half of the ingredients.
One set of relatives mixed the rest.
All Watts had to do was blend their contributions to have his red sauce and keep its secret, too.
Watts is one of 16 Black barbecue makers profiled in compelling multipage sidebars seasoning Adrian Miller’s new book "Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue," a comprehensive history of barbecue’s development and cultural significance. (Rodney Scott merited a profile, too: It’s subtitled “Changing the Barbecue Game.”)
Here, the author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time" performs a Watts-like feat, fusing different strands of scholarship to form an original and memorable take on an iconic culinary tradition.
While plenty of researchers have delved into topics such as barbecue, Black labor, American entrepreneurship and food media, Miller pulls together a diverse array of sources to show that Black barbecue kings (to use the term which prevailed before “pitmaster”) were exploited and marginalized from the start.
Yet despite the incredible amount of time he clearly spent scrolling through primary texts and visiting Black-owned barbecue restaurants, there isn’t a sentence spent bemoaning the challenges he confronted.
Instead, Miller suggests that the story of how African Americans shaped barbecue wasn’t hidden away. White food writers and historians just chose to ignore it, perpetuating the racism that Black barbecuers have long faced.
As late as 2003, Bon Appetit ran a story titled “Who’s Who in American Barbecue,” illustrated by a drawing of 17 White men grilling and playing croquet. The cartoon, reprinted in Miller’s book, also included a toque-wearing White woman looking lovingly at one of the chefs and an Asian man playing with a beach ball.
“Barbecue is being whitewashed,” contends Miller, who sardonically lays out a five-step plan for cutting Blacks out of barbecue coverage. (Step 2: “Consult non-diverse professional and social networks and press releases for suggestions on whom to profile.”)
With "Black Smoke," Miller has begun to correct the record. And although he doesn’t shy away from the seriousness of the task, he can’t help but tackle it with some puns and general goofiness. Miller is a good-natured guy.
Actually, he’s Adrian to me. Since years ago meeting Miller through the Southern Foodways Alliance, I’ve had the chance to join him on a few of his restaurant outings, including most recently in Las Vegas. I always like hanging out with Adrian, and my guess is you will, too.
"Black Smoke: African Americans and United States of Barbecue" is our next selection for The Post & Courier Food section book club launched earlier this year. Miller will join us for a virtual discussion of his book on Tuesday, June 8 at 5 p.m. eastern.
There is no charge to participate, but it’s more fun if you read the book in advance. The Charleston County Public Library has three print copies in its catalog, as well as digital copies of the book available on Overdrive. The title is also available for purchase through Blue Bicycle Books at bookshop.org/a/1117/9781469662800.
And since food is our focus, we want to make sure everyone in attendance has the right snack. Nigel and Louise Drayton of The Slaughterhouse BBQ & Brew in Ladson recommend picking up one of their Super Sam pulled pork sandwiches. The menu item was named for Nigel Drayton’s late father-in-law, Sam Williams, remembered by his family as a devoted barbecue fan.
To register and receive the all-important Zoom link, go to pcfoodbookclubam.eventbrite.com. See you there!