Smokestack Lightning

Dwight Garner reviews Lolis Eric Elie's book "Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country".

Published June 20, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

When it comes to barbecue, serious fans don't just like to eat it -- they like to argue about it. You can pick a fight in Texas, where they almost exclusively serve up smoked beef with a tangy tomato-based sauce, simply by suggesting that the kind that's offered up in the Carolinas (mostly pork, marinated in a vinegary brine) isn't half bad either. Barbecue buffs even drag scholars into the scuffle, debating whether the word "barbecue" is derived from the French term "barbe a queue" (literally, "beard to tail") or from the Caribbean term "barbacoa," which refers to an age-old form of roasting meat underground. And these arguments are only the tip of the barbecue iceberg.

For the rest of us, the best advice is to eat fast and keep your head down. In his new book "Smokestack Lightning," the New Orleans-based journalist Lolis Eric Elie, along with his partner, the photographer Frank Stewart, dips lightly into a whole heap of these issues while relating the story of a road trip the pair took through the South and Midwest a few summers ago in their old Volvo, searching for America's best barbecue. They make a lot of noise about suffering everything from "bad barbecue and cheap hotels to long drives and fruitless interviews," but given the amount of great food they do find, it's a little hard to feel sorry for them.

Elie and Stewart met while the former was the road manager for the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the latter was collaborating on a book with Marsalis, and their musical background pays off in some nice riffs. (Frank describes one cook as "the Art Tatum of the Cornish game hen.") Further, both men are black, and they deliver some fine writing about what barbecue and its history have to say about race and class in America. "Whenever pork and people come together," Elie writes, "it's a safe assumption that the rich people will end up with the hams and chops and the poor people will end up with the ribs, lips, foots, and chitterlings."

Unfortunately, this road saga fails to coalesce into anything more than a string of vignettes. There's no drama, no strong interaction between Elie and Stewart, no compelling reason to keep reading. The action (profiles of cooks, mostly) scrolls by as if under a magnifying glass. You miss the droll, on-the-verge-of-salivating glow that gourmand food writers like Calvin Trillin or Jane and Michael Stern inject into their prose.

The real reason to grab a copy of "Smokestack Lightning" -- besides the toothsome accumulation of recipes at the end -- is for Frank Stewart's photographs. Stark, lyrical, and beautifully composed, they say more than Elie's prose is ever quite able to.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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