Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country
By Lolis Eric Elie
Photographs by Frank Stewart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35
Reviewed by MICHAEL SWINDLE
Smokestack Lightning fully supports its premise that "barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense," and while it focuses on the food, it is, indeed, "really about the people and places, and consistencies and changes that produce it." It is a must-read for the barbecue aficionado, and a thoughtful, lively and entertaining introduction to the world of barbecue for those who may wonder what all the fuss is about.
Lolis Eric Elie (from New Orleans, a world-class restaurant town where good barbecue cannot be found outside private homes) and Frank Stewart (who grew up in Chicago and Memphis, Tenn., and does not "suffer mediocrity in barbecue lightly") met and became friends while touring with the Wynton Marsalis Septet. Elie was employed as road manager for the band, and Stewart was along as photographer and collaborator on a book with Marsalis called Sweet Swing Blues on the Road.
The idea of traveling the country together to study the various conceptions of barbecue was born "over a plate of barbecue in Wilson, North Carolina. Barbecue there is different from the national norm," Elie writes.
Having sampled North Carolina barbecue, I can only admire his critical restraint. Personally, I am in full agreement with the novelist Barry Gifford, who has declared the stuff to be "like something the mule chewed up and spit on my plate."
I relate this not to offend North Carolinians, but to make the point that barbecue is an intensely personal thing. Some people boil the meat before grilling it. Some want it finely chopped; others want it sliced. Some want a vinegary sauce, some a tomato-based, some a mustard-based.
Even the word has a range of meanings: "In the Southeast, barbecue refers almost exclusively to pork; in the Southwest, almost exclusively to beef; and in the Midwest (specifically Kansas City), generally to both," says Elie. To Ray Robinson Sr., who owns the Cozy Corner in Memphis, the word simply refers to how the food is cooked. "If you're gonna write a book," he told the authors, "do me one damn favor. Explain to people that barbecue is a way of cooking. So don't walk into a place and say, "Give me a barbecue.' Give me a barbecue what? That's like walking into a place and saying, "Give me a fried.' A fried what? That's very important to help barbecue along."
Our duo began their peregrinations in Memphis. For the next six months, they rambled through Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama, with special visits to Chicago and Kansas City. They stopped at "each place with a sign featuring barbecue in any of its spelling variations. The dirtier the place, the more illiterate the sign, the better."
One of their most interesting discoveries was Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas. There Mr. Vera and his sons are the only folks in town allowed to sell "barbacoa" cooked in the ground. Barbacoa, a traditional Sunday breakfast in that part of the world, is cows' heads, ranging from 18 to 35 pounds, cooked over mesquite and ebony wood. A whole head goes for $1.69 a pound, cheek meat is $6.95 a pound and eyeballs (the favorite delicacy of the older people) are $4.50 a pound.
One section in the book deals with the "sexual implications" of barbecue. While Elie and Stewart found a few women in the business, like Mrs. Softa of Otto's in Houston and Amazing Grace Harris in Kansas City, the world of barbecue is overwhelmingly a realm of men. Not to oversimplify Elie's thesis, but I think he sums it up well when he says that to an extent, "women don't barbecue because men do barbecue."
Frank Stewart's photographs are evocative and intimate, but come across a bit dark. He seems to have been done a disservice by the choice of paper for the book or by the printing process. The photo captions are also overly busy and annoying, suggesting a graphic designer run amok. But these are minor quibbles.
An excellent addendum includes a source guide to the literature of barbecue; recipes for various meats, sauces and rubs, and side dishes; and a listing of 49 barbecue places mentioned in the book.
Michael Swindle is a writer based in New Orleans.