When soul-food scholar Adrian Miller comes to Winston-Salem this weekend, he’ll be looking for recommendations for where to eat.
Besides a scheduled appearance as part of a seven-course dinner held at Sweet Potatoes’ new downtown location, Miller doesn’t have much else planned for the day, and he’s willing to drive hours in search of quality barbecue or soul food. He’s been told to check out the Skylight Inn BBQ south of Greenville — three hours from Sweet Potatoes — but Miller is open to suggestions.
Miller won a James Beard Award for his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, and he also authored the more recent release The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas. He lives in Colorado, but he’ll be in North Carolina for the Terra Vita Food & Drink Festival and will be stopping at Sweet Potatoes while in state.
But despite his considerable credentials, Miller admits he’s still eating his way through North Carolina, and the tabs on his website listing his favorite soul food and barbecue leave out the Old North State entirely. That’s an oversight, he said; Mert’s Heart & Soul in Charlotte should be on there, and Allen & Son’s, too. He loves Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, though it doesn’t qualify as soul or barbecue, and he has good things to say about Sweet Potatoes as well, but adds that he thinks of the restaurant “as more Southern/American.”
“When I think of a soul food joint, I think of a place that’s going to do a lot of variety meat dishes,” Miller said in a phone interview. “I think of them as more classic Southern.”
Pausing briefly, he added: “I know in the South the lines between Southern and soul are so blurred.”
Foodies no doubt already know all about Adrian Miller; his Oct. 22 appearance at the black-owned Sweet Potatoes makes for a great opportunity for them to meet him and hear him talk in a much more appropriate setting than a lecture hall. But you don’t have to be obsessed with food to be drawn to the canals full of history that he’s dredging.
Miller came by the subject for his latest book by accident, finding repeated references to African Americans cooking for this nation’s presidents while researching the history of soul food. He found at least 150 black people who cooked for US presidents, but said he believes he’s just scratching the surface.
That history makes sense, and is almost obvious in hindsight, Miller added — for centuries, black people were considered to be born for roles of servitude, so it isn’t surprising that they did the cooking in the White House. Some were slaves or longtime family servants who arrived alongside the president-elect, and most were accidental, he said, adding that it isn’t that these cooks dreamed of cooking at the White House but instead that they found themselves thrust into the role.
Not that the cooks were without agency — it’s fascinating to hear Miller talk about how various White House cooks acted as confidants, as windows into black life in America, and even as civil rights advocates. The relationships have been complicated; think of the proprietor of Freddy’s Ribs in “House of Cards” and President Underwood, if you’ve seen the show.
Miller enjoys excavating that complex, multi-dimensional history. It’s why he’d like to write about the historical relationship between Jewish food and drinks and black cooks some day, he said. That’s right — picture black cooks going to Jewish delis to buy kosher meat, or working in Jewish homes as cooks, or even being spokespeople for products like Manischewitz for ads in black newspapers.
Whether you’re interested in hearing Miller talk about the future of soul food — from restaurants such as the Seasoned Vegan in New York City to the Grey inside a former Greyhound bus station in Savannah — Hillary Clinton’s hot sauce affinity, Donald Trump’s eating habits or why none of the African-American presidential cooks he’s discovered are from North Carolina, just 10 minutes in conversation can be transporting and enthralling.
But even if you can’t afford the cost on the seven-course meal this weekend (that will feature chilled mint pea soup, baked mac & cheese, grilled salmon, country captain chicken, Pedernales River chili, a tropical fruit smoothie and sweet potato cheesecake), you can still read one of Miller’s seminal books published by UNC Press.
Or shoot him a note telling him where to eat on his visit.
Already love Adrian Miller and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet? You might also like Michael Twitty’s book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South or Nicole Taylor’s work, including her book The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen.