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Alumni in Action: Adrian Miller

Alumni in Action logoWelcome to "Alumni in Action," CCSD's new series exploring the accomplishments, journeys and Pathways of Purpose of district alums from across the history of the Cherry Creek School District!

The study of history boils down to the study of people and their everyday lives.

Exploring the past means examining the daily habits of those who have come before. How did individuals living decades, centuries or millennia ago survive, work and play? How did they rear their children, build their cities, and express themselves?

How did they eat?

Smoky Hill High School alum Adrian Miller has spent more than a decade exploring that last question, specifically as it relates to a segment of the American population that has been too often overlooked, whitewashed, or erased in historical scholarship. Miller, a lawyer, public policy advisor, and historian has authored several books that examine the culinary traditions and legacies of African Americans across the United States.

Adrian Miller“I never thought food would be the kind of jumping-off point into history that it has been for me,” said Miller, who graduated from Smoky Hill in 1987 and went on to study at Stanford University and Georgetown Law School. “If you think about it, though, it’s obvious. People have to eat, and food can be a window into another time.”

With that basic premise, Miller has delved deeply into African American culture and won international recognition for his scholarly achievements.

His first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” was published in 2013 and received several honors, including the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship. His 2017 follow-up, “The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas” earned a nomination for the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction, while his most recent book published in 2021, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” won the 2022 James Beard Foundation Award for a book in the category of Reference, History, and Scholarship.

“There are so many stories to tell when it comes to this subject,” Miller said, “stories that are informative, entertaining, compelling.”

Miller’s path to culinary scholarship was hardly straightforward. He practiced law for four years after college before serving as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton from 1999 to 2001 with his Initiative for One America, the first freestanding office in the White House designed to address issues of racial, religious, and ethnic reconciliation. He was a senior policy analyst for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter Jr., and he currently serves as the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, the first African American and the first layperson to hold that position.

His role as a culinary scholar began with the discovery of the book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History” by James Egerton, a work that combines history and practical cooking guidelines. Miller found that inspiration in that book, so much so that he reached out to the author for more information. When Egerton told him that the definitive work on Black cuisine in America had yet to be written, Miller began an in-depth and intense research process that ultimately resulted in his first, award-winning book.

“I reached out to food writers with more experience than me. They said there wasn’t a lot of information on this subject, because of America’s racist past,” Miller said. “I got online and found so much information. I found that these Black cooks had been celebrated in the past. We just got away from doing it and preserving these records.”

Miller’s first book paid tribute to that history in a practical and immersive way. “Soul Food” features a soul food meal, with each specific component carefully detailed and described. The book also includes recipes that trace how African American cuisine was “re-established and reinterpreted” across the country in the midst of the cultural diaspora.

“I created a representative soul food meal,” Miller said. “I write a chapter about every part of the meal, how it gets on the soul food plate, what it means to the culture.”

His next two books tackled different elements of the subject, from the history of Black cooks in the White House to the story of Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restaurateurs across America.

Miller, who currently tours, lectures and teaches internationally, said he can trace his successes as a scholar and historian to his time in the Cherry Creek School District. At Smoky Hill, he was involved in the school’s speech and debate team, an activity that put him “on the trajectory to go to Stanford.”

Smoky Hill was also a place where he developed relationships, and tapped into the type of academic excellence that would come to define his career.

“I always saw myself as a connector. I had an interesting place in high school. I was a Black kid who was a nerd, unabashedly, but I also made friends with the jocks and other social groups,” he said. “My teachers cared about my education. I still keep in touch with some of them … I’m so grateful to have been able to go to a public school like Smoky Hill. To be in CCSD as a public school. I did so many things, so many things I could avail myself of.

“If I had gone to a district where I didn’t have those resources, where teachers didn’t care about my education, I don’t know how it would’ve played out,” he added.

-- Posted 9/22/22 at 1 PM