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“If I could eat barbecue every day without health consequences, I would,” says Adrian Miller. The James Beard Award-winning author, food historian, and self-proclaimed Soul Food Scholar isn’t shy about his love for the cuisine, and research for his newest book—a deep dive into the African-American roots of barbecue tentatively titled Black Smoke—led him to eastern North Carolina in January.
Miller met the producers of the PBS show Somewhere South through the Southern Foodways Alliance; when they heard about Miller’s upcoming book, they invited him to be on the show. The six-part series follows North Carolina chef Vivian Howard (formerly of PBS’s A Chef’s Life) as she spotlights the individuals and dishes that unite and define the American South. That’s how Miller found himself touring smokehouses in rural North Carolina with Howard in Somewhere South’s final episode, “How Do You ’Cue?,” which explores barbecue traditions in four states.
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“It was cool to explore aspects of North Carolina barbecue I’ve never experienced before,” says Miller, who is the author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas. “The best part was seeing how everything is made, particularly whole hog barbecue, and the time and dedication that people put into it.”
Miller says that eastern North Carolina-style barbecue is often misunderstood—outside of the state, the genre is often synonymous with pork slathered with sweet, vinegar-heavy sauces at the table—when in reality, seasoned pit bosses mop a more subtle vinegar-based sauce on the whole hog throughout the smoking process. This mopping seasons the meat, which is usually coarsely chopped, dressed with a similar tangy sauce, and served with a simple coleslaw. “The style doesn’t get as much love as it should,” he says.
In Somewhere South, Miller and Howard visit Sid’s Catering, a whole hog barbecue restaurant in Beulaville that’s only open on Saturdays; the Skylight Inn in Ayden, which has been wood-firing whole pigs since 1947; and Boogie’s Turkey BBQ in Elm City, an African-American-owned spot that smokes and serves turkey using whole hog barbecue techniques. In the scene where Howard helps Boogie’s pit master Willie E. Hill, Sr. pick freshly smoked turkey off the bone, Miller explains the origins of American barbecue, including how the cooking technique is a Native American tradition that was spread from the South to other U.S. states by enslaved Africans as early as the 1840s. “After emancipation, African-Americans were Southern barbecue’s first ambassadors,” Miller says.
Throughout the episode, Howard asks pit bosses and enthusiasts to define “what makes barbecue, barbecue.” While no one agreed on the best cooking methods or type of protein, the reason behind the cuisine is clear: Barbecue is a celebration. Miller agrees. “Barbecue is about tradition and community,” he says. “ It’s a very accessible food that creates a moment for people to come together.”
Watch the final episode of Somewhere South featuring Adrian Miller on May 1 at 8 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS, and look for Black Smoke at bookstores in spring 2021.