Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale was built by Southern barbecue.
Rev. John F. Cummins (of the eponymous Cummins Highway) organized a “genuine Southern barbecue” in 1894 in Roxbury to raise funds to build Roslindale’s first parish church. Southern barbecue was then unknown in New England. The result was staggering. Ten thousand people showed up and the event yielded $5,200 in profits — equal to almost $115,000 today — according to The Boston Globe archives. The barbecues were held for nine more years; sometimes garnering 50,000 attendees.
The barbecues succeeded because, for most of the fetes, Cummins hired Charles W. Allen, an experienced black Southern barbecue chef from Lexington, Va. Allen and Sally, his wife, slow-roasted an ox at each barbecue for 12 hours in a deep pit filled with charcoal that generated aromas attracting fascinated and hungry crowds. (Allen was reportedly frustrated he was unable to cook with wood in Boston.)
Boston’s unique place in barbecue history is part of Adrian Miller’s newest book “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” Miller’s earlier books are “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time” (2013) and “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas” (2018). “Soul Food” won a James Beard award in 2014.
“I think what makes Adrian’s work so important is that it is becoming increasingly recognized that African Americans are the foundation of our nation’s cuisine in so many ways,” says Sara Camp Milam, managing editor of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “His work tells stories that haven’t been told, or are under told, in our nation’s history and he tells those in a Black perspective, in a voice and tone accessible to so many readers.”
Miller and his work has been featured in two recent Netflix series “Chef’s Table: BBQ” and “High on the Hog: How African Cuisine Transformed America.” He spoke by telephone from his home in Denver.
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. There hasn’t been a book to really trace how we got from the earliest days of barbecue to where we got to now, especially from an African-American perspective. In my research, I saw how barbecue and Blackness got wedded over time.
Barbecue only happened during slavery when the work schedule slowed on the plantation to allow this type of cooking because barbecue takes time. It was often on weekends and special occasions. So, in the midst of these horrible conditions, barbecue was often tied to joyous times: the laying by of the crops, the harvest. It was fascinating that, during slavery, so many of the nearly successful slave rebellions were planned over barbecue. … And African Americans used barbecue as resistance by feeding Union soldiers. After Emancipation, African Americans were barbecue’s most effective ambassadors in terms of spreading it around the country. By the time you get to the mid-19th century, African Americans are barbecue’s go-to cooks. Things changed in the 1990s.
Q. What happened in the 1990s?
A. Up until then, any barbecue article of note would have had African Americans. But in the ‘90s, traditional food media never gave credit to African Americans or people of color.
Q. You mean there was no diverse representation?
A. Do you know that Rodney Scott’s book (“Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ”) is the first book by an African-American barbecuer published by major press in 30 years? It makes me mad because it just shows how insular the publishing world, when it comes to food media, can be. Some of the most well-known joints in the country are run by African Americans. Why haven’t any of them been approached to do a barbecue book? Because of this lack of diversity it makes complete sense when people who are new to barbecue are asking ‘Where do I get good barbecue?’ and, of course, they’re flocking to the white dudes. Because those are the only people that have been presented to them as the standard-bearers for barbecue! And what kills me is some of your colleagues in your industry will give a spotlight to a white dude who’s opened up a barbecue place and will say things like, ‘Oh, we’ve never had good barbecue in our communities until this person started.’ That whitewashing adds to the myth of the white barbecuer. If you talk to people of a certain age — I would suspect anybody in Boston who’s like 40 years or older — and you ask them where did they get their first bite of barbecue — I bet you it’s highly likely that they got it from a Black-run place.
Q. Are there any good barbecue places in Boston? What would be the telltale signs of a good barbecue spot?
A. I am still searching for a superlative Black-owned barbecue place in the Boston area, but I haven’t been to Boston in maybe three years. In terms of what to look for, you’re always looking for a place that cooks with wood. So, this is how people are fakin’ the funk. They know that people are looking for wood so they’ll put a pile of wood outside of the restaurant and then they’ll burn a little bit of wood to give that perfume but they’re still cooking with gas. Most places are now cooking with gas … [because] demand for barbecue is so high that if you’re going to cook massive amounts of meat [then] having one of these Southern Comfort gas cookers (a smoker/grill machine) allows you to do that.
You’re also looking for food that has a good amount of smoke on it, but is also tender. And I love the places that have a really focused menu and just try to show consumers their specialty. The thing that just drives me nuts is there’s a lot of restaurants that will make all of their meats the same way and then they’ll give you customizable sauces, which is not really true to the traditions of a lot of places.
Q. You have a wider audience now because of the Netflix shows. How does that feel?
A. When I first started writing these books I didn’t know how they would be received. I’m very much about telling these stories of the African-American food traditions in a positive and rich way. And I want to celebrate various aspects of the culture and the cooks who made that culture happen. I just feel really lucky to be able to tell these stories.
Peggy Hernandez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez.