“What? You’re a Stanford-educated man. You should do something more noteworthy!” That’s the reaction I got from someone whom I told about my pivot to becoming a self-described “Soul Food Scholar.” Many others reacted similarly, especially women that I tried to date. Up until that time, I was a pretty risk-averse person. No longer. After a decade in Colorado politics, I cashed in my modest retirement savings, and lived on that sum to write a book on the history of soul food. I had no idea if the book would be well-received and what kind of job I would get afterwards. Here’s why that financially unsound choice was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.
My interest in the subject was piqued in 2001 when I read a sentence that the late John Egerton wrote in his classic book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History: “But the comprehensive history of black achievement in American cookery still waits to be written.” With no prior experience writing a book, but extensive experience eating soul food, I said to myself, “I can do that.” That’s what launched my wondrous journey! Researching African American culinary history is a passion, but it’s always been a side hustle. I could never figure out how to make it lucrative enough to support me.
Once my stint in the Clinton White House was over, I moved back to Colorado with a plan to run for office and eventually represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate. Sticking with my career goals, I worked at the Bell Policy Center for six years, and then another four years for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. Like an earnest graduate student, I spent hours online and at libraries finding out everything that I could about food and African Americans. I read more than 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people, thousands of digitized magazine and newspaper articles, spoke to hundreds of people about culinary traditions, and then ate my way through the country for the sake of “research.” What drives me is a desire to tell untold stories, and revive previously told stories, about the contributions that African Americans have made to our nation’s cuisine. Fortunately, and unfortunately in a sense, there’s plenty of these stories to tell because mainstream media has continually overlooked African Americans.
Things have turned out pretty well thus far. My first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. My second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas was nominated for several awards. My third and latest book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, is off to a roaring start. The books led to more financial opportunities. I get many opportunities to speak and write freelance articles for a decent amount of pay. Oh, and that person who was critical of my creative pivot. She now holds me up as an example to her children of how anything is possible if you pursue your passion!
Adrian Miller is a critically-acclaimed food writer, former politico, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado.