Adrian Miller, who describes himself as “a curious guy with an appetite,” has held quite a few distinguished titles. A graduate of Stanford University and Georgetown Law, Miller practiced law in Colorado before becoming a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and Deputy Director of the President’s Initiative for One America. In 2007, he became Deputy Legislative Director for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. Somewhere along the way, he also became America’s leading authority on the topic of soul food.
After spending the entire year of 2011 doing research (“I went to 150 soul food restaurants in 35 cities in 15 states,” Miller told me with a laugh), he penned the new book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. On January 17, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Miller will host a book signing and meet-and-greet at the Multicultural Center of the South in Shreveport. On January 18, he’ll make two appearances in Minden, first signing books at The Farm, 1-3 p.m., and then taking part in Chef Hardette Harris’ fantastic-sounding event, The Dream Dinner, 6-9 p.m, also at The Farm.
I had the pleasure of talking soul food with Mr. Miller in advance of his local appearances. This interview has been edited for brevity’s sake. I can get carried away on this topic.
Chris Jay: How do you define soul food?
Adrian Miller: The first layer of that definition is that it’s a traditional food of African Americans. The second layer is that it’s really the food that African Americans are eating outside of the South. Once you get inside of the South, the line between soul food cooking and southern cooking can get blurry.
CJ: In Shreveport-Bossier, we’re lucky to have a lot of amazing places to eat soul food. But I doubt that most of us have ever really thought about it in an academic context.
AM: Right, so we want to elevate these cuisines so that they take their rightful place in American culture. Right now, in a lot of restaurants, there’s this huge emphasis on local sourcing of ingredients. I think it’s just as important to source the traditions.
CJ: What makes an outstanding soul food restaurant, in your opinion?
AM: To me, it’s going to be a place where the food is made from scratch, as much as is possible. You’ve got to have a good chicken dish – usually, it’s fried or smothered chicken. I’m expecting good cornbread, which has to be somewhat sweet. And there’s got to be an emphasis on good vegetables. I expect a soul food joint to be kind of homey. At a lot of the best soul food joints, you almost feel like you’re eating in someone’s house.
CJ: Soul food is fascinating to me because, while there’s a canon of staple dishes, every community has its own traditions – its own local comfort foods – like stuffed shrimp in Shreveport.
AM: Or yaka mein in New Orleans and Norfolk – there’s yaka mein in Norfolk, Virginia! – or Nashville’s hot chicken.
CJ: So, let’s pretend that I’m taking your order at a soul food joint. What main entree and three sides would your ideal lunch consist of?
AM: Smothered chicken with black-eyed peas, a mixture of mustard and turnip greens with some smoked turkey or possibly ham hocks, and definitely candied yams. And cornbread. I’m a cornbread guy.
For more information on Chef Hardette Harris’ The Dream Dinner, visit her website or RSVP to the events featuring Adrian Miller via Facebook. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time will be available for purchase at the book signing events in Shreveport and Minden.