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St. Petersburg’s collard green festival is back. Meet this year’s headliner.

Adrian E. Miller is headlining the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival on Feb. 17.
 
Adrian E. Miller, author and Soul Food Scholar is presenting at the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival on Feb. 17, 2024 in St. Petersburg.
Adrian E. Miller, author and Soul Food Scholar is presenting at the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival on Feb. 17, 2024 in St. Petersburg. [ RYAN FILA | Courtesy of Ryan Fila ]
Published Feb. 8

Ask Adrian E. Miller anything about soul food and he’ll have an answer.

The food writer, attorney and self-appointed “soul food scholar” is the headliner for this year’s Publix Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival on Saturday, Feb. 17. The annual St. Petersburg event that started in 2018 features a collard greens cook-off and a fresh collard giveaway, free taste tests, fitness demos and more.

Miller, who is based in Denver, Colorado, is the author of three books including “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” for which he won a James Beard Award. His book “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” details the stories of African Americans who worked in White House kitchens. Miller once worked as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton. In 2021, he was featured on the Netflix docuseries “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.”

Miller became interested in the history of soul food after leaving his job with President Clinton in 2001. He found a book by John Egerton called “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” which said that the tribute to African American food had yet to be written. He embarked on that journey.

At the collard green festival on Feb. 17, Miller will present a program called “Black Chefs in the White House.”

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Miller by phone to discuss becoming a soul food scholar, the evolution of greens and how Black chefs influenced American cuisine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does one become a “soul food scholar”?

So when I decided to endeavor on learning as much as I could about African American food traditions, I read 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people. Wow. And listed every reference to food. I read about 500 cookbooks, half of them authored by African Americans because I wanted to put Black food traditions in a larger context. I read thousands — I can’t even tell you how many newspaper and magazine articles I’ve read. I’ve talked to hundreds of people and then because I care so deeply about my subject, I decided to eat my way through the country.

It was surprising to read in your book “Soul Food” that cooking greens with pork is a European tradition, going back to ancient Rome.

Because of the way that slavery played out in the U.S. and also the difference in climate, soul food is really a British meal with West African influences. Whereas when you go to the Caribbean and South America, because slavery operated in a different way, people had more kind of autonomy over what they ate, and also because of the similarity and climate. Yeah, much more correlation with African ingredients and techniques in the Caribbean.

Another revelation in the book was that enslaved people often grew their own small crops to sell.

In a lot of cases, people had their own patch of ground and so they grew their own food and if the climate worked they were introducing foods from West Africa. So if they could grow okra, watermelon, black-eyed peas or other field peas. You know, a lot of these things get introduced because people could grow their own foods. And then what was really cool is that they were often allowed to go and sell the produce and in some instances, depending on the arrangement, again, with the slaveholder, enslaved people were buying their own freedom and the freedom of their relatives or buying decorations and stuff for their slave cabin. Just because they were allowed to sell this food.

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What’s your favorite way to make greens?

I make mustard and turnip greens, smoked turkey, and I add in onion, garlic and red pepper ... One of the things that is untold about soul food is the foraging aspect ... people would go out and pick greens. People don’t forage as much now, and they don’t utilize as many parts of the greens as before. So you know, you’ve got a few people who refuse to use the stems of greens when they cook. Me, I put it all in there. I used to tell people I was a stalker, but that’s a bad connotation.

What are some trends you’ve seen in both soul food and with collard greens?

The hottest trend right now in soul food is vegan. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of creativity. You could still get the same flavor profile, even though you don’t use smoked meat. What people are doing for instance, they’re using smoked spices. You might add some smoked paprika so you get that traditional flavor profile, but you just don’t have the meat. Kale was the hot green for so long, but you know, collards then became the new kale, which is hilarious. I think you’re starting to see a general wider acceptance of greens. But really, it’s just how greens are playing out in terms of mashups with other cultures. Like for instance, I’m writing an article about a cookbook by a guy named chef Todd Richards and he had done mashups like collard green pho and collard green eggrolls.

What can people expect to hear about Black Chefs in the White House?

They’re going to hear about (George) Washington’s enslaved cook, Hercules, and James Hemings, (Thomas) Jefferson’s chef who made mac and cheese. They’re also going to hear about the Southern chef Daisy Bonner, who got FDR hooked on pig’s feet (and) about the chili recipe that got Lyndon Baines Johnson in hot water.

What to know if you go to this year’s Collard Green Festival

The festival features a collard greens cook-off and a fresh collard green giveaway (as well as ones to purchase from vendors), free taste tests and fitness demos. It’s free to attend and happens 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at 2240 Ninth Ave. S, St. Petersburg. tbcgf.org. Miller will also appear on Thursday, Feb. 15 at the University of South Florida in Tampa from 6-9 p.m. at C.W. Bill Young Hall (12303 USF Genshaft Drive) to discuss his book “Black Smoke,” which details African American barbecue culture. It’s free to attend. For the festival’s Collards After Dark event on Friday, Feb. 16, Miller will present “A Liquid History of the U.S. Presidency” at 6 p.m. at the Cuban Club (2010 N Avenida de República, Tampa). Tickets are only available at Tombolo Books (2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, tombolobooks.com) and include a signed copy of “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet.”