Thursday, July 22, 2010

BBQ Book Review - Smokestack Lightning

Title: Smokestack Lightning
Author: Lolis Eric Elie
Published: 2005 (first edition in 1996) by Ten Speed Press

What happens when a photographer and a food writer decide to hop in their aged Volvo and head across the country in search of the quintessential 'cue from nearly every region in the US? You get Smokestack Lightning, which comes served with a serious craving for all things smoked. While it was published some years ago, a bit of the information is outdated. The original road trip took place in 1993, so some 17 years had passed since I finally spent a few hours on a few plane trips finishing this incredible read. This fact actually serves to cement one of the author's main points that we're losing these establishments at a rapid rate. The children who benefit from their pitmaster parents are going off to college without much desire to continue the 16 hour days that they witness as a child.

The book begins with a poetic description of the decrepit Hawkins Grill, and ends back at the same place where patrons tell stories of recent murders and robberies in the area while jazz plays softly on the jukebox. In between, these adventurers overcome surly, bordering on racist proprietors (both men are black), loss of stomach space, and the inevitable car trouble to find some of the most storied, and many backwoods, out-of-the-way joints around the country. Many of the stories stray far from BBQ like the antics in and around the rampant Southside nightlife in Chicago, but no matter the setting, the author successfully brings you into that particular place.

For my obviously biased taste, the book could use more coverage of the Lone Star State You'll find equal billing given to Kansas City, Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis and Owensboro. It's not technically a comprehensive guide, but each joint mentioned is explained in a much deeper manner than simply assigning it a star rating. I also particularly enjoyed some of the quotations amassed along the way. Here's just a sampling:

"In the end, it was made deliciously clear that, whether your taste be for barbacoa, brisket, or ribs, you'll find no better quality and variety than that in Texas."

"They assert that, statements in various magazines to the contrary, you cannot barbecue hamburgers, roasting ears, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, wieners or salami, and it is a shame and disgrace to mention barbecuing in connection with such foolishness."

"We couldn't find even one good place along the Arkansas highways we traveled. Tennessee was a bit better, Georgia and the Carolinas somewhere in between. But Texas!"

"Your stomach which seems suddenly empty even though you just ate. Which is to say it is empty of barbecue and all that goes with it."

This may be the single finest book written about barbeque. By combining the essence of the great American road trip with the medium of smoked meat, it makes for great, mouthwatering prose.

- BBQ Snob

1 comment:

Wyatt McSpadden said...

I had the pleasure of being on a BBQ panel with Mr. Elie and Calvin Trillin last Summer. This is a beautiful book.
Well written with terrific photographs. Certainly belongs in a 'cue lovers library.


Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.