The Gannet Q&A

Adrian Miller

21st February 2017

Interview: Adam Park

Adrian Miller was born in Denver, Colorado – a fact that, he says, “immediately loses me all street cred on the subject of soul food and barbecue in the eyes of others”. Miller, who still lives in Denver, has more than made up for this in his writing: he is the author of Soul Food, which won him a James Beard award in 2014. A recovering attorney, he is currently the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, a state-wide, religious social justice organization. His next book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, is out now.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

I have had so many memorable meals at the annual Southern Foodways Alliance fall symposium which takes place each October in Oxford, Mississippi. The symposium always has a theme, and in 2004 it was “Southern Foodways in Black and White”. To reinforce the theme, chef Ann Cashion created this menu of edible racial reconciliation:

– Carolina she-crab soup and West Indian peanut soup
– Alligator pear and grapefruit salad with poppy-seed dressing, cressy greens, dandelion greens and pork cracklings
– Braised pork shoulder with roasted corn spoonbread
– Caramel cake with cane sugar ice cream

The food was superb, and Cashion showed real genius in the way she integrated foodways of black and white southerners. The meal portended of a not-too-distant future when we can all sit at “The Welcome Table”.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

I’d have to say the community cookbook pulled together in the 1980s by the church mothers at Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado. It’s a great compendium of classic soul food recipes. My late mother, Johnetta Miller, contributed a few of her best recipes to the collection, so it’s good to re-live some memories of her when I flip through the cookbook. One of the great recipes she included is lemon icebox pie: it’s very similar to a key lime pie except it has a lemon custard and uses crushed vanilla wafers to make the crust. This is the pie that family members fought over during the holidays.

Leah Chase, who is in now her 90s, still works her magic in the kitchen. The food is delicious, especially the green gumbo

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

I can’t think of anything I ate, but one drink stands out in mind: kombucha! I’m not feeling it at all.

Describe your perfect breakfast.

A short stack of fluffy pancakes (preferably from the International House of Pancakes), some crispy bacon and a large glass of orange juice.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

The last meal in Soul Food. The full spread of classic soul food dishes on that long table reminded me of so many past church suppers, funeral repast and Thanksgiving holidays. It was a table full of love!

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

The Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans is my choice, mainly because of the sense of history. Leah Chase, a national treasure who is in now her 90s, still works her magic in the kitchen. The food is delicious, especially the green gumbo. Diners get a taste of history, a history that will immediately fade into memory when Ms Chase cooks her last meal.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

I loved the version of calzones that my mother used to make. She used a hot roll mix to make the outside crust and filled it with a heavenly mix of hamburger, Italian sausage, sautéed vegetables and mozzarella cheese. After they were baked, we covered the calzone with a tomato sauce and more grated mozzarella cheese.

For a long time, my fried chicken game wasn’t tight, and I knew that situation could not endure if I am to advertise myself as a soul food authority

What’s the best thing you cooked at home in the last month?

Without a doubt it’s Nashville hot chicken – fried chicken with an incendiary chilli pepper sauce slathered upon it. For a long time, my fried chicken game wasn’t tight, and I knew that situation could not endure if I am to advertise myself as a soul food authority. I’ve made it at a couple of charity dinners, and it was a huge hit.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

I don’t play music while I’m cooking because I usually sing aloud. I’m all over the place, so one cooking session could feature gospel, R&B, rap or anything that was played on the radio in the 1980s and early 1990s. I’m experiencing a Luther Vandross vibe of late, and I’m mostly singing “Wait for Love” and “If Only for One Night”.

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

My large stockpot in invaluable to preparing my favourite soul food items: mixed greens (some combination of collards, kale, mustard or turnip greens) with some smoked turkey; black-eyed peas with smoked ham hocks, and a hibiscus tea made with ginger and lime.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

I would have to be American-style barbecue. It’s not my first love in terms food, but it is my true love. I love the smell and taste of smoked meat, especially pork spareribs.

Pick a favourite story from your new book and tell us about it.

The book has so many great stories, but the one that keeps me laughing concerns President Harry Truman and First Lady Bess Truman. They liked to have an Old Fashioned cocktail before dinner. It consists of bourbon, a simple syrup of sugar and water, some bitters, and is typically garnished with an orange peel. Alonzo Fields, a longtime White House butler, took charge of making the cocktails. After the first couple of attempts, Bess Truman complained that the cocktails were too sweet. Fields then served the first couple straight bourbon, and the First Lady exclaimed, “Now, that’s the way we like our Old Fashioneds!”
It was fascinating to learn how African American presidential chefs have played multiple roles in presidential history: as culinary artists, as family confidantes and as civil rights advocates.

Follow Adrian: Twitter | Instagram | website

Posted 21st February 2017

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: Adam Park

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