This spring’s release of two important books on Black barbecue are essential reading for so many reasons. “Black Smoke” and “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” take readers deep into the history of what makes this tradition so special, exploring sometimes painful personal experiences along the way. 

In a recent group interview, the three authors behind these excellent books make the case for food cooked low-and-slow and the feeling of community it creates. These titles are far from typical cookbooks, appealing to audiences who care about complicated human relationships and righting the exclusion of the Black experience from history books.

Meet the authors

Adrian Miller traveled extensively to research “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” He’s written several award-winning books and was recently crowned the Bard of Barbecue in a profile by his Stanford University alumni newspaper.

Rodney Scott is a James Beard award-winning chef and owner of two restaurants that bear his name, the flagship in Charleston, S.C., and the second in Birmingham, Ala., with a third location in Atlanta set to open this summer. He cooked his first whole hog at age 11. 

Lolis Eric Elie is a seasoned journalist and screenwriter, whose seminal ”Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country” was published in 1996. He co-wrote “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ.”  

The interview has been condensed and edited to include context.

Thank you all for taking the time to do this interview. I’m in absolute awe of these books. But before we talk about the new releases, let’s start way back when and talk with Lolis about “Smokestack Lightning.” When you set out to do that book, what was your intention?

Elie: The book’s photographer, Frank Stewart and I wanted to show that barbecue reflected American culture in a way no other food did. That the range of barbecue goes all over the country and changes from region to region in a way that other emblematic foods like fried chicken and hamburgers and pizza don’t. We also found that barbecue evolves to reflect communities. You look at a Jamaican cookbook and even a book that’s not about barbecue will have a recipe for jerk. Or, when Vietnamese come into a community, you get fish sauce in barbecue. We thought barbecue reflected the community, so in terms of the places we went we wanted to go to places where barbecue was part of their identity. Memphis is barbecue, that’s all they talk about. Same with Texas and the Carolinas. 

Rodney, how have things changed in the years since you cooked your first whole hog at age 11 in your hometown of Hemingway, S.C.? 

Scott: I’ve encountered a lot of different measured recipes, a lot of different styles and techniques about something I thought was only done one way. I’ve learned a lot about people incorporating smoke and vegetables into sides and vegetables, not just the meat itself. Because growing up in my area, that’s all I thought about. It was just fire and meat and whatever else was cooked on the inside. So I’ve learned that you can do a lot of other things. Like the episode of “Chef’s Table” where the chef’s smoking some romaine lettuce. For me, I don’t want lettuce to hit room temperature. I want it crispy, cold and crunchy. But it’s something to think about.  

I’ve also learned that since coming to Charleston and getting a little notoriety here and there, a lot more people are confident in those mom-and-pop areas. They feel like they can do it. There’s a guy who lives about four miles from my mom’s house who called me a few weeks ago and said I’m ready. What do I need to do? And I walked him through it. I said get your brand. You know you’re doing barbecue. What’s going to be your main thing? Find your location. He said, “I feel like I can do it.”  

Let’s go way, way back and talk to Adrian about the history of Black American barbecue. In your book, you talk about the contributions made by American Indians, which might surprise a lot of people. Can you speak to that?

Miller: The reason I poked into that is I think a lot of what we hear is about the Caribbean journey of barbecue to the U.S. But it didn’t all add up. So, I wanted to go back, but the tricky thing is a lot of this is not well-documented. So a lot of us are making educated guesses. But the people who were going to what we call the American South, what were they encountering? And then how do we get to the time where people are digging trenches and filling it with coals and cooking whole animals. Everything I saw from the Carribean was the raised platforms. How do you get from that to digging a hole in the ground? Looking at the sources, we see that indigenous people on the mainland were doing something that seems like an antecedent to that, something that West African and European culinary practices were eventually grafted onto. That they were doing something that barbecue eventually became later. I didn’t really know about that either. It’s not in the history books. 

Everyone who has a Weber or a Trager thinks barbecue is so easy. It seems like simple principles, but it’s hard. How do you explain the process to people who don’t know what’s involved?

Scott: I usually start by telling them to be careful, be safe, respect it. A lot of the new people think they can go to this grill and light it up and it’s no big deal. They throw this protein on there and they’re taking the risk of fires flaring up. They’re taking the risk of food not being properly cooked. They’re taking the risk of destroying a party or an event around this grilling. They think it’s quick and easy and it’s not. It takes preparation and time. I had a guy call me and ask why his meat tasted so bitter. I asked what he did and he said he just put the wood under the meat. No, that’s not going to work. He said, “Well, you use wood.” Yes, but you’ve got to burn that wood down into coals and get the bitterness out first.

When it comes to barbecue cooks, there’s always been a certain amount of secrecy around recipes and techniques. Why did you decide to share your secrets?

Scott: Well, first of all, shout out to Lolis. He guided me through this whole process. Now, I’m going to tell you how to build a Ferrari, all right? I want you to get four tires, a frame and an engine. Then get you some carbon weight body panels to put together. 

My point is, I can know everything that it takes to build a Ferrari but I’m not going to take my Black behind outside and try and build one. You can give people all the tools and lists and the techniques and they’re not going to do it. They’re going to shy away from all the labor and the time it takes. Even though we shared these things, people are probably not going to go out and do it.

Miller: Which is why I think people are more secretive about their sauces. Because I think people could actually make the sauce. 

In Adrian’s book, Rodney talks about his technique for making sauces: You add a little bit of lemon and lots of love. Isn’t love really the secret of all great barbecue. It’s really an exercise in giving to the community, right?

Elie: It’s hard, hot, difficult work. When you think about it, most people go to the stove and turn on the fire and they’re ready to cook right then. With barbecue, it’s an hour before you’re ready to put the meat on. I think another reason barbecue is special is because it’s something most people do only four or five times a year — maybe once a month.

Are those community barbecues still going on?

Scott: A little bit, not as much. One family in Hemingway, S.C., turned it into a party and called it a luau. Another neighbor used to do a Super Bowl party. You’d look over and smoke was everywhere. Turkeys, chicken, deer meat, raccoon. It’s still being done here and there. 

Lolis, what was it like to work on this project with Rodney? There’s some heartbreaking, painful revelations (including details of an abusive relationship with his father). He’s really putting it out there. 

Elie: Rodney was generous in giving me credit, but I think it had a lot of it had to do with Rodney having time to reflect on some of the things he’d gone through and being ready to talk about them. At one point, we had talked about doing a book that was a lot more about the food and less about him. But the first real meeting we had, he told me, “I’m going to tell you some stuff I’ve never told anybody.” That became the center to what the book became. That conversation grew and grew. I’ve got to give credit to him and to time.

Rodney, how does it feel, putting these painful details about your relationship with your father out there?

Scott: Refreshing. It was very therapeutic to tell someone. You carry this load around and it got heavy. I still remember that morning, talking to Lolis on the phone. I said to myself, “You know what, I think it’s time.” I unapologetically said to myself, tell your story.  I think that was one of the longest phone calls we had. I just told it straight like it is. After I talked about that experience on “Chef’s Table,” a lot of people walked up to me and said thank you. They’d say I’m experiencing the same thing with my dad. Wow, this is impactful. It felt good to tell it. For people out there who’ve been through it, I hear you. Let me just tell the story and tell you exactly how things went. It felt good to tell it. I’ve been sleeping way better since I said that. 

What has been the reaction from your family?

Scott: Who cares? I’m going to be honest. Since we finished the book, my dad passed in December. I had to go back to that area and the reactions of some of them seeing me there helping with the funeral, it was a little different, a little weird. But I felt confident, I wasn’t afraid. I felt like everything was OK. And one of the guys who last spoke to my dad told me that he knew that I was starting to grow, that I was doing OK down here in Charleston. My brother asked him if he was OK with that and he said, yeah, I’m OK. That kind of settled my disturbing thoughts that this man got away and was never happy with what I was doing. We let time take over our situation. But knowing that he knew I was doing OK gave me a sense of peace. I’m good. I talk to my mom every day now, I see her a lot more now. I’m a lot more relaxed. Yes, there’s a lot of mourning and getting used to things. But I feel like a whole new person. Now, whenever they do read it, the truth hurts and that’s what I did. I told the truth.

Elie: I also want to say, we did our best to be fair to people involved, even those who didn’t want to be involved in the book. This isn’t about Rodney dogging his people. It’s about his experience.

Adrian, during your exhaustive research for the book, did you encounter any other story like Rodney’s?

Miller: Actually the stories I encountered most were of the barbecuers who wanted to pass on their operation to their kid, but thought that their kids couldn’t handle it. They didn’t have confidence in their kids, some of them even calling them knuckleheads. It made me sad because when they’re ready to close it up, that’s it. But they felt the kids weren’t as dedicated to the craft of barbecue.

Barbecue really is a craft, equal to fine dining. And we’re starting to see that recognized more widely. Rodney, what did it feel like to win a James Beard award? How did that change your life? What were you thinking when they called your name?

Scott: Oh, man, when they announced my name, all I heard was the first two syllables. The room just went numb. I sat there and thought, “No way.” Nicholas (Pihakis, his mentor and business partner) jumped over my wife and shook me and said, “You’ve got to get up there!” I really thought I had fallen asleep and that I was dreaming. My feet were hurting before that because I was so nervous. As soon as I stood up, the pain was gone. That was one of the longest walks I’ve taken. To get on that stage, it was a dream come true. To look back in that crowd, just to be mentioned among some of those greats — I just couldn’t believe it. I’m still excited about that night, almost three years later. Sometimes, I’ll pass that tuxedo in the closet and think that was just so unbelievable.  

What have you been doing lately to continue to make your barbecue even better?

Scott: We found a great farmer in Wilmington, N.C. — he’s got some of the best hogs. He’s still as local as you can get. He’s been able to supply both restaurants. The hogs are consistent, super clean. As far as running the restaurant goes, the fine-tuning process led to creating manuals, so if I’m not standing by the pit, the current pit person can refer to the manual and know exactly what to do. That didn’t happen out in the rural areas, where people said, “Hey, when it turns brown, back up.” I learned to apply temperatures to apply to all this in order to teach the next person how to do it properly and consistently. I had to learn to teach people something that was second nature to me.

Adrian, are people you talked to about cooking barbecue now more interested in the whole animal, farm-to-table efforts?

Miller: Only the cats who are relatively new to the game, maybe they’d gone to culinary school — those are the guys who really talked about that. The vast majority weren’t talking about it. It wasn’t mentioned on their menus.

Elie: I found that people will talk exhaustively about how they go get this certain type of wood in a special place, but when you go to talk about the beans and the coleslaw, all that’s coming out of cans and bags. There’s a real disconnect there. Why are you gonna spend all this time on the hog and open a can of beans and add some sugar?

Let’s hear from Rodney about the spectacular sides at the restaurant. That makes a huge difference, right?

Scott: Yes, sides make a big difference. I recently went to a place that’s supposed to be so good, and ordered chicken, pork, ribs — and the beans were the only things I liked. Went back and tried it again, tried it three times and decided this place didn’t work for me. But the beans and the mac were pretty good.

Elie: I’m thinking about a place that’s very popular. If you go there, you have a great time. It’s perfect for bringing big groups. But it’s important to remember that all these things need to come together for it to work. 

Adrian, you were inspired to write the book after watching a television special on southern barbecue on the Food Network that featured not a single Black barbecue cook. Can you talk about that?

Miller: Well, there were Black folks in the background, eating barbecue. Lately, though, I’m seeing some bright signs, some momentum. My book isn’t the typical diversity critique of media because I’m like, ’Y’all have never honored Black barbecue. I’m like can we go back to the 1980s, when it was pretty common to feature Black barbecue in the media? The more local, the more likely they were to get coverage. One thing’s that happening, people like Rodney and Kevin Bledsoe, they’re getting book deals. We’re starting to see better representation. Because we’re out there pressing the case. I’m now on the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame committee, pushing for more diversity. 

Elie: Part of what’s frustrating is that while white chefs were getting more credit, Blacks folks were not being recognized. I see that in the soul food in particular. People were cooking to try to make enough money to get their kids to go to college and not go into to do something different because cooking was all we were allowed to do. I think this reversal in the way cooking has been reconsidered, that has happened mostly for white kids and white folks in general and black folks were slower to get to it. Because there’s that struggle for us in the broader sense to find professions lucrative enough for us to support our families. 

It’s heartening to see something like the Kingsford Charcoal mentorship (launched in January, it’s called “Preserve the Pit”). Do you think it’s key for businesses to get behind this effort to support and promote Black barbecue?

Miller: Absolutely. I’ve been getting approached by major commercial brands and it’s shocking to me that they have no diversity. They’re sheepishly admitting it to me. These are major brands, but they know they have to do better. The case is strong. Barbecue is a big part of African American culture, so if you do nothing, you’re just saying you’re not going to try to tap into this huge, lucrative market. I’m not even going to try. How do you stay in business? It’s mystifying to me. 

For barbecue professionals looking to scale up or to get into the game, what do you recommend?

Scott: It’s important to learn to teach. I had to learn. It would lead to more consistency. 

Miller: When I spoke to the barbecue legend Ed Mitchell, he spoke to that. When I asked him why he didn’t open more locations, he said he felt like he had to be there and he didn’t know how he could do that. 

Elie: You’ve got to understand, everything in this country from coast to coast — not just the South — was designed to make sure Black people would not make progress. You can’t say Rodney or others not being able to teach others is what’s holding people back. Everything was structured to minimize the chances of Black success and suddenly you’ve got the Johnny-Come-Lately attempt to ameliorate the problems in one industry that missed the boat. It’s only one industry at a time and that’s not going to work. I think people miss that this is fundamental to our experience in this country. 

Miller: Yes, I tried to show that in the chapter on business. The lack of access to capital, being put in a certain part of town, the heightened scrutiny, all of these things combined to undermine Black entrepreneurs. 

Are things changing?

Scott: Oh, I’m going to change it. If it’s in my circle, I’m going to change it. Scariest thing: You still experience people who disrespect you because your skin’s a different color. One thing I’ve learned is that he who angers you, controls you. And if they do things to intentionally upset you and you smile, I feel like I’ve won. I feel like I’m going to earn your respect at some point. You’re going to say who are you and what do you bring to the table? 

Miller: Rodney talked about this earlier, but he’s already inspiring people around the country. He’s got a real shot at having multiple franchises around the country. That’s inspiring. Lolis’s eloquent writing about barbecue inspired me to write my book. I’m still salty about the fact that he hasn’t been offered a TV spot, especially compared with the other cats who get stuff. I’m just cheerleading for you, Lolis.

Wrapping up, I’d like everyone to ask what they’re going to order when they’re at Rodney’s place?

Elie: I ate at Rodney’s with Angie Mosier and she ordered the wings and I’m like why the hell did you order those? And, wow, dem wings. Of course, you’ve got to get the pork, but those wings are going to surprise you.

Scott: Thank you.

Miller: When I ate at Rodney’s, (Vice President) Kamala Harris was there on a campaign swing. That was so cool. I really love the ribs and I wasn’t expecting that. I’m a ribs guy, so if you impress me with the ribs, I think you’re doing something right.

Scott: For me, it’s whatever I feel like that day. I have this personal goal that the menu should be good all over. If it’s going to have our name on it, everything should be good. 

Any final thoughts? Words of wisdom?

Elie: We talked about progress. One of the things that was striking to me about Adrian’s book is that he found all these old stories and I was under the impression those stories from the ‘20s and ‘30s had already been found. There were a bunch of stories that I hadn’t heard before. What that said to me is that there have been times in our past that Black people have been celebrated for barbecue and for other things. However, those names had been forgotten to history and had to be rediscovered. Which is to say now, in this current context, we’ve got the three of us talking about this, it suggests a certain kind of progress. Because certainly Forbes wouldn’t have been interested in barbecue or Black barbecue 30 or 40 years ago. But it’s on us to make sure these names are not forgotten again. We can’t let this history go backwards.

Scott: We’re coming. Barbecue’s coming. Coming in hot.

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