Food historian and James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller calls himself "The Soul Food Scholar" for good reason. Many years of researching African-American foodways have resulted in 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 — with a third, tentatively titled Black Smoke, in the works.
Miller's latest effort is an exploration of the African-American roots of barbecue and their ongoing contribution to the distinctly American cooking style. But despite Miller's accumulated knowledge and expertise in the field, he realized that there was at least one part of the barbecue map he'd never visited: eastern North Carolina. Fortunately, he had connections to help get him to his final research destination — and land him a TV spot in the process.
Chef Vivian Howard runs restaurants in North Carolina and has her own show on PBS called Somewhere South. "Vivian is familiar to people who are fans of her restaurants," Miller notes, "and the producers contacted me because they got word about my upcoming book. I had met them previously through the Southern Foodways Alliance."
And so in January, Miller found himself in front of the camera with Howard sampling barbecue — specifically, whole-hog barbecue — at several renowned smokehouses in small towns off the beaten path. "I flew into Raleigh-Durham and then got in a car; you have to drive to these places, because they're not close to any big airports," he explains. "One of the underlying premises of the episode is, 'Let's take this national barbecue expert and show him what we do here in North Carolina.'"
Among his destinations was Sid's Catering, a whole-hog barbecue joint in Beulaville (more than 100 miles from Raleigh-Durham) that's only open on Saturdays. "There are very few people still cooking with wood, and there are even fewer people doing whole-hog," Miller notes. "Whole-hog barbecue is a serious art, and a lot of it is about fire management."
Miller was surprised by the subtle vinegar and smoke of the pork at Sid's. Most Denver barbecue restaurants that offer "Carolina style" use heavily smoked pork shoulder and too much mustard and vinegar, he points out, but "in North Carolina barbecue, the smoke is pretty subtle, because they're cooking over coals that have already burned down quite a bit."
In Miller's episode of Somewhere South, viewers vicariously share a bite of meat and crackly skin straight from the barbecue pit. "That was one of the best things I've ever eaten," Miller recalls, noting that another distinction of the eastern North Carolina style is that all the different cuts of the hog are chopped and mixed together for the perfect balance of meat, fat and skin.
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The show also took Miller to the Skylight Inn in Ayden, where owner Sam Jones traces the town's barbecue prowess back to Skilton Dennis, who sold smoked meats out of a wagon in the 1830s. "There's a nice staccato as the guy there chops the meat," Miller says. (That "guy" turns out to be named Chopper, the show reveals.) "In terms of texture, the meat itself is very succulent, almost like steamed meat, but then it has bits of crispy skin chopped up and mixed in, so you're getting different textures and flavors."
And a final stop found Miller and Howard enjoying a rare treat at Boogie's Turkey BBQ in Elm City, where the turkey is smoked, chopped and served using the same techniques as whole-hog barbecue, down to mixing in the chopped skin. Miller says that turkey barbecue is a growing trend among African-Americans looking for a healthier alternative to pork, and he's even found smoked turkey "ribs," made from the bird's shoulder blade so that it cooks and eats like a pork spare rib.
With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting the economy and shutting down restaurants across the country, Miller is concerned about preserving the skill and knowledge of pit masters in regions like eastern North Carolina. "The culinary legacy, the community legacy — so much of it could be lost," he points out. But he's also hopeful, because "a lot of barbecues, especially the ones run by black people, are set up well for takeout."
Vivian Howard starred in five seasons of A Chef's Life before launching Somewhere South this season. Catch Miller's episode at 8 p.m. Friday, May 1, on Rocky Mountain PBS.