Adrian Miller, the James Beard Award–winning author of Soul Food and Black Smoke featured in the Netflix series, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, spent much of his time during the pandemic rediscovering his hometown of Denver and re-examining his roots.
“I’m originally from Denver, Colorado, which immediately makes me lose all street cred on the subject of Southern food and soul food!” he says with a laugh. Outside of studying at Stanford University, Georgetown Law School, and a stint as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton on his Initiative for One America, Miller has lived in and around Denver his entire life. His interests and influence extend far and wide, though—from Veracruz, Mexico, to Jamaica and North Carolina to Nigeria. In an interview with AFAR, he takes a close look at foodways and the meaning of the word “home.”
On being a “soul food scholar”
There’s one destination that Miller feels would bring many of his gastro-stories full circle. “I would really like to go to Jamaica . . . mostly because of the food stories. In my writing about barbecue and soul food, I make references to a few Jamaican foods, and I think it would be really interesting to see traditional cooking there—maybe connect some dots to what we call soul food.”
Miller would also like to study and visit the Veracruz region of Mexico on the Gulf Coast. The port city of the same name was founded in the early 1500s and used as an anchor for Spain’s conquest of the native Aztecs. The Spanish began bringing enslaved Africans with them to Mexico via Cuba, spawning an Afro-Cuban and Mexican hybrid culture over the centuries that’s still prevalent today, notably in its Carnival and food traditions. “I’m a big fan of Mexican food and I would love to discover Afro-Mexican food.”
On rediscovering lost roots outside of America
“I really want to go to West Africa . . . specifically Guinea-Bissau. I have [DNA] connections on both my mother and father’s sides. I also want to visit Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria. So much heritage and storytelling has been disrupted purposefully. I want to reach back to my ancestral home . . . and that’s the biggest weakness in my food knowledge. You know it’s hard to say and figure out what was happening 400 years ago. Trying to figure out what happened during the time of enslavement, you know? It’s really just a matter of making educated guesses. I really want to feel a sense of kinship . . . and just travel with no time restriction.”
On his favorite places to eat that feel like home
Grady’s BBQ in Dudley, North Carolina, is one of Miller’s all-time favorites. Set on the side of the road in the unincorporated community of Dudley, this town has approximately 10,000 residents—and Grady’s owners Steve and Gerri Grady are some of its most beloved. Serving up classic Carolina barbecue since the 1980s, Grady’s is one of the few Black-owned barbecue restaurants in the state. Miller also says LC’s Bar-B-Q in Kansas City embodies everything he loves about this classic barbecue city, including its iconic burnt ends. Never leaving his hometown out of any food conversation, Miller adores Denver’s CoraFaye’s Cafe; it’s his go-to place for bone-in fried whole catfish and coconut cream cheesecake, plus all his favorite soul food comfort staples.
On Denver’s greatest assets
The gorgeous stained glass windows at the Colorado State Capitol Building are a must-see for history buffs when visiting Denver. “What’s interesting about them is they have some very notable African American people from Colorado in the windows. I don’t know how many places across the country can say that,” Miller says proudly. He also suggests Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre for hiking and biking and to visit for the changing of the aspens in the fall. “Nature puts on a good show in Colorado.”
On rituals that bring peace and keep him rooted
Miller’s familial church, prayer, and meditation have allowed him to recenter himself and discover stillness. “Where I am now, I’m not gonna lie, the pandemic was just such a beatdown psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually that I can’t say I kept that practice up,” he says. “So it gave me a deeper appreciation of . . . what it means to slow down and reflect.”
Miller’s every-holiday pie recipe
Adrian Miller’s Lemon Icebox Pie
When it comes to comfort food that he associates with home, Miller, best known for his takes on barbecue, doesn’t hesitate: “Lemon Icebox Pie.” Think of it as Key lime pie and lemon meringue having a gifted child. “Even though it’s really a summertime dessert, we loved it so much that it showed up every single holiday. . . . It is very sweet and it is awesome,” Miller says.
2 egg yolks
1 (15 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
1 unbaked 9-inch vanilla wafer crust
3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
Beat egg yolks until light and fluffy. Add the sweetened condensed milk and beat until fluffy. Mixture will stand in peaks. Stir in lemon juice and grated lemon rind. Spoon filling into a crust made of crushed vanilla wafers and melted butter.
Beat egg whites until foamy. Gradually add sugar and beat until mixture is stiff. Spoon on top of the lemon filling being careful to seal all edges. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes. Yields one 9-inch pie.