While researching an article on the remarkable cache of cookbooks that is the Husted Collection at DU’s Penrose Library (which you can delve into further with me here), curator & all-around nice guy Steve Fisher suggested I get in touch with Adrian Miller, whom, he explained, works in Governor Ritter’s Office of Policy & Initiatives by day but is writing a book about the old South in his spare time.
So I give the guy a buzz & discover that, true to his deadpan demeanor, Fisher was putting Miller’s story mildly. Turns out the Denver native’s actually a super-fancy senior policy analyst, not to mention a former deputy director at President Clinton’s Initiative for One America &, most important, a connoisseur & chronicler of all things soul food—his expertise culminating in his role as a certified BBQ judge as well as author-to-be of a definitive work on the soul food classics in history (emphasizing their development above the Mason-Dixon line, mind you!) & in today’s American kitchen, from chicken & waffles to peach cobbler. Whew! (See, sometimes my long, convoluted syntax is a function of the matter at hand as opposed to mere neuroses.) Oh, & almost-&-perhaps-future local chef-restaurateur (as ye shall see).
Naturally I begged & pleaded for an interview, & he graciously agreed. (Granted, it turns out I’m not the 1st to milk him for all he’s worth—in 2008 he penned a dynamite guide to Denver BBQ for 5280, throwing in a mini-primer on regional American BBQ styles as a bonus. He also colectured with Rabbi Levi Brackman at what sounds like an amazing Mixed Taste seminar at MCA Denver back in June, “Hot Sauce & Jewish Mysticism”—how did I miss that one?!—& features heavily in this rich 2003 piece on “barbeculture” from StorySouth, “The Marrow of the Bone of Contention: A Barbecue Journal.”)
Fill us in on your life as a soul mensch. Where’d you grow up, what were childhood meals like, etc.?
When I was real little, I lived in the Park Hill neighborhood, not too far from the old Stapleton Airport. My family moved out to Aurora while I was still in elementary school, & that’s where I stayed until going off for college.
I have 2 Southern parents, so I grew up eating soul food, but I really wasn’t cognizant of that—to me it was just dinner. I know this will gross some people out, but I loved, & still love,
We would only have them on Thanksgiving & New Year’s Day. Our New Year’s meal is still my favorite traditional meal: along with chitlins, you serve greens for money (we mixed turnip & mustard greens), black-eyed peas & ham hocks for good luck, candied yams, cornbread, & lemon icebox pie for dessert. I’ve learned how to make everything except the icebox pie.
As little kids, we took turns making breakfast. So my early specialties were scrambled eggs (sans shell after several tries) & French toast. My first non-breakfast dish was
Indian fry bread.
rather gorgeous pic from Taste Buds
I saw the recipe in the newspaper. I remember the dough was really sticky, so I had a hard time making it.
And that was the springboard to your very nearly running a restaurant in the space now occupied by Cuba Cuba? Do tell!
I used to be in a law firm, & when I got to the point where I was singing spirituals in my office I decided, this is not working out for me. So I decided to open a restaurant. Yeah, it was gonna be in
I had a floor plan, a chef waiting to come on board, a planned menu, & we were strategizing about how to raise money. In the middle of the process, I got an opportunity to work in the White House and I took it. You know, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
What would it have been like?
My favorite name was Soulstice: A Celebration of African Heritage Cooking. I thought it was pretty unique, but then a year or two later, a TV show, “For Your Love,” had the same name for its fictional restaurant. I said to myself, “Dang! If I ever open up that restaurant, people are going to think I copied the name from that show.”
Initially, the restaurant’s menu would have 3 parts: Southern/soul food standards; health-conscious versions of the standards; & then a space for the chef to reinterpret those standards. After the restaurant got its sea legs, there would be a 4th part: a rotating menu featuring some area of the African diaspora.
For example, 1 rotation could feature African-American cooking in Virginia; the next would feature African heritage cooking in Venezuela. The rotating menu would be educational, with me providing a blurb that would give historical & social context for the place & the meal. I want people to understand why certain foods are traditional & how certain dishes build on what was eaten in Africa.
I would also hope to have on staff someone practiced in the featured cuisine as a guest chef to implement the menu.
That is so cool. Is owning a restaurant still a possibility in the future?
I still think about it, but I’m waiting for the economy to rebound. I figure that I’ll probably have only one chance to implement this concept, & I want to launch it when times are good.
You’re also a certified BBQ judge. What’s the story there?
What you should know is that, much like boxing, there are several sanctioning bodies in barbecue. There’s at least the International Barbecue Cookers Association (TX), the Memphis in May Association, & the Kansas City Barbecue Society. I belong to the KCBS.
I went to a barbecue-judging class because I wanted to learn more about barbecue for the soul food history that I’m writing. I was astonished at how much of the class was about process—how you score, how a contest is run, what’s illegal, etc. Of course it makes sense now because the contest organizers want to make sure their judges know what they’re doing…
After you complete the class, all you have to do is maintain your KCBS membership (i.e., keep your dues current) & you can judge as many barbecue competitions as you would like. It all depends on how much leisure time & money you want to spend in the pursuit of barbecue excellence. I typically do the competition in Frisco & the one in Dillon.
from Dillon’s BBQ at the Summit
What, to you, defines really good BBQ—what do you look for?
I like smoked (pork) butts & I cannot lie…Oops, I think that’s a song. When it comes to barbecue, I like tender meat & a good smoke smell & smoke flavor. I also like a little crunch on everything except chicken & hot links.
What defines really bad BBQ—what common mistakes lead to it?
Well, a lot of people fake the funk by boiling or baking the meat first, then finishing it on the grill to give the appearance of smoking. For people who aren’t used to eating good barbecue, that’s good enough, but to me it’s really lazy & dishonest. Restaurateurs who do that should call it grilled meat, not barbecue. I can usually tell by looking at it, & I can definitely tell after tasting it. Boiled and baked meat has a different texture than smoked meat.
Some places also drown their meat in sauce, eliminating any chance to evaluate it. Good meat, if truly smoked, should stand on its own without sauce. I know a place has a decent chance of being good when they serve their product without sauce without even asking me.
Another thing is that people love meat that’s “falling off the bone.” When that happens, that means the meat has been overcooked. It may taste great, but it’s still overcooked. [Amen to that—something I learned way back east while hanging with devotees of the New England Barbecue Society! If even Yankees know it, so should everyone—Denved.]
What are some of your favorite restaurants in town and why?
I usually cook at home, so when I go out, the restaurant had better have great personality & great food. With those two ingredients, I can always cook up a good conversation. My short list of special places is: Café Brazil, Mizuna & Vesta Dipping Grill. That’s where I take people who are visiting from out of town.
But I really have simpler tastes, so I’m going for comfort food or ethnic cuisine: Big Papa’s (barbecue), Country Time BBQ, Jim ‘n’ Nick’s (barbecue), El Taco De Mexico, Tacos D.F., King’s Land (dim sum), Ocean City (Chinese), Jerusalem (Middle Eastern), & Walton’s Donuts.
Name the brightest gems at the above BBQ joints.
Jim n’ Nick’s: The smoked-sausage appetizer with pimento cheese, saltine crackers & thin fresh jalapeno slices); spare ribs; Angus brisket; pork shoulder; baked beans; coleslaw; & the incredible cheese muffins (it’s impossible to eat just one).
Big Papa’s: spare ribs, bison ribs, smoked chicken, fried okra, baked beans, sweet potato casserole.
Country Time: brisket, hot links, spare ribs, chicken, peach cobbler.
So there you have it. Thanks, Adrian. May the Soulstice come to Denver year-round someday.