It’s like winning an Oscar for your first film, and food writer Adrian Miller has done it: He won a James Beard award for his first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.
The proper name of the honor bestowed upon Miller is the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner – Reference and Scholarship. It’s a mouthful. But casual cookbook readers shouldn’t be dismayed by that mention of academic excellence. This is an engrossing book full of stories, lore, illustrations, and recipes.
Curious to learn how the award was affecting the Denver-based writer, I sat down with him on a Southern swing that brought him to Columbia for the SC Book Festival in May. Travel delays and his appearance schedule nearly squeezed shut our brief window to meet, but Miller was gracious and engaging during the few minutes we had to chat.
“It’s an exciting pinnacle, to do this on my first book,” he said. “It’s great validation.”
Then he added he’d had some “haters.” “There is so much criticism of soul food.”
Initially, he wasn’t certain about embarking on the project. But John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, said, “Write the book you want.”
Chapters include “Fried Chicken and the Integration of Church and Plate,” “Chitlins: A Love Story,” and “How Did Macaroni and Cheese Get So Black?” Miller also faces head-on the difficult aspects of soul food’s history, from the nuances of social standing to the casual use of the n-word by modern-day “rappers and racists.”
Miller is a former attorney and political policy advisor who now works as Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches. He’s also a certified barbecue judge and maintains his status by partaking at every opportunity. “I never get tired of barbecue and would eat it three meals a day if there were no health consequences,” he confessed.
His next project will focus on black chefs in the White House. He has begun work on a documentary titled The President’s Kitchen Cabinet. And given Adrian Miller’s ability to tell a compelling story with staying power, it too is certain to be a winner.
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Johnetta’s Mixed Greens
Makes 8 servings
2 smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey wings, or 1 leg (1 pound)
1-1/2 pounds turnip greens
1-1/2 pounds mustard greens
1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 2 minced garlic cloves
1 medium onion, chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
Rinse the hocks, wings, or leg, place them in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the hocks, wings, or leg.
Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.
Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar, and salt.
Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.
From Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time by Adrian Miller. Copyright © 2013 by Adrian Miller. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu.