Southern food has surged in popularity in recent years, in part because of the efforts of Sean Brock and other chefs who have taken to the airwaves to evangelize the history and traditions of cooking in the South. But as far back as 1999, the Southern Foodways Alliance was studying, documenting and sharing food and cooking in the American South. In fact, if it weren't for the group's 2006 interview with André Prince Jeffries, owner of Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, the current hot-chicken craze that has invaded nearly every major U.S. city might never have been born.
According to Denver food historian and author Adrian Miller, not enough credit has gone to the black cooks who invented hot chicken, so he makes a point of calling the dish "Prince's-style hot chicken" instead of the more generic "Nashville hot chicken." Miller's dedication to uncovering the stories of African-American culinary history are a big part of why the Southern Foodways Alliance chose him as the winner of this year's Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, which has honored an "unsung hero or heroine, a foodways tradition bearer of note" every year since 2000.
Miller was selected this year because of his two books, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time and The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas. The first traces soul food back to its roots in Africa and illustrates how African-Americans adapted traditional recipes from the time of slavery to the modern era. The second traces the history of black chefs and cooks who have worked for nearly every U.S. president.
Miller says that the SFA award, delivered last week at the Southern Foodways Fall Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, was particularly significant to him because of the organization's mission to "bring Southern whites and blacks together at the same table — hopefully for reconciliation."
Miller was on the board of directors of the Southern Foodways Alliance from 2003 to 2008, when he helped plan the alliance's annual symposiums; he considers the group one of the top food-based organizations in the country and credits it with a resurgence in Southern foods. Chefs and restaurants have come a long way in representing a broader range of Southern cuisine, he says, but there's still a long way to go.
"There's a growing awareness of the global South," the author notes. "People are starting to pay attention to Latinx Southerners and Vietnamese shrimpers of the Gulf states, and other immigrants."
Now when Miller sees hot chicken on a menu, he pretends he doesn't know what it is in order to see how deep into the history of the dish the server will go. "If they can tell me everything about the animal I'm eating — what farm it came from, how it was raised, what its hobbies were — why can't they culturally source the food, too?" he asks.
Tracing cultural sources is part of Miller's next project, a book about African-American barbecue cooks, tentatively titled Black Smoke. He's traveling coast to coast to explore the evolution of barbecuing traditions in African-American communities and recently hit several cities on the West Coast, finding surprising stories — and good ’cue — from Seattle to Chandler, Arizona.
Born and raised in the Denver area, Miller says it's definitely an honor for a non-Southerner to be recognized by the Fertel Foundation and Southern Foodways Alliance. Colorado isn't known as a hotbed of barbecue, soul food or Southern cooking, but Miller is putting our state on the map as a source of expertise in the field.
As he puts it, he's "dropping knowledge like hot biscuits."