Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Review: Smokestack Lightning

Smokestack Lightning
– Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country
Words: Lolis Eric Elie
Photographs: Frank Stewart
Pages: 224
Publisher: 10 Speed Press

There are three distinct styles of writing that I particularly appreciate. Authors such as William F. Buckley have such an incredible command of the language that they wield words like surgeons wield scalpels. Precision and clarity are the hallmarks of their writing. James Patterson, Jeffrey Archer and Ernest Hemingway are masters of brevity. They capture and distill the essence of what they are trying to communicate and convey that essence to the audience in fewer pages than other authors would have thought possible.

Lolis Elie belongs in the third group. Like Roger Zelazny and Maya Angelou, Elie brings a lyricism to his writing. His colloquial style is perfectly suited for the genre of books that Smokestack Lightning helped to form. Books about the culture of BBQ have become much more prevalent over the past few years, but when this book was written thirteen years ago, it was ground breaking.

There is a melancholy feel that threads in and out of the narrative in Smokestack Lightning. It often seems that this is as often a book about loss as it is about BBQ. This book was written in the mid 1990’s, just prior to the renaissance of BBQ that was spurred on by the advent of the Food Network, the internet, the growth of competitions and this very book.

Frank Stewart and Lolis Elie set off in a Volvo to traverse America’s BBQ byways on a Quixotic quest to find the mythical ‘BBQ’ that helps define us as a nation and culture. There is much to be admired in this book, but nothing more so than their candor. The majority of the BBQ that they tried seemed to be average at best. They traveled to all of the BBQ hot spots and apparently found few standouts.

This is often a story of what we have lost. Customs, pride in traditions, cooking skills and methods all seem to be on the cusp of disappearing. I don’t think it would have been possible for Stewart and Elie to anticipate what was right around the bend. How could they have imagined true pit BBQ being celebrated in Maine and Seattle? What prognosticator could have dreamt of the fellowship and growth spurred on by internet groups such as the BBQ Brethren?

I’m not sure if Stewart took so many photos that they were able to tailor their selections to Elie’s descriptions or if Elie catered his phrasing to the photos, but the words and images meld seamlessly to tell the same tale. As much time was spent speaking with practitioners of BBQ as there was in evaluation of their efforts. This is a glimpse into the lives BBQ people and their culture more than a travelogue of gustatory feats.

The photos have an immediacy to them that transports you to the place and time that they were taken. They capture an emotion, a feeling and a zeitgeist that helps to give you an understanding that words alone wouldn’t. Elie’s ability to turn a phrase is simpatico with the often colorful characters that populate Smokestack Lightning. His phrasing is as unique as his subjects and helps to evoke more than what is on the page. Even handed discussions of racism, segregation, urban decay and blatant racists add more power to the narrative than a justifiably angry diatribe would ever have.

This is a seminal work in a growing field. I often loan or give away BBQ related books when I’m done with them. It will be stretching the bounds of my altruism to get me to part with this book.


~post signature


BP said...

I read this book recently and I did enjoy it - great writing and great photographs. But it seemed to me that Elie definitely had an axe to grind on the subject of race. I understand that race is definitely a factor in the cultural history of barbecue, but good grief, it seemed like literally EVERY chapter made race/racism/segregation a part of the storyline - almost Jesse Jackson-esque at times.

Still, though, it's nice to read a book about barbecue that's written with such literary dexterity.

Eric Devlin said...

I understand where you are coming from, but I didn't see it that way. Two quick points:

1) There is no denying the impact of race on BBQ. It would be a bit odd to ignore it.

2) This was a personal story as much as it was an objective overview of the subject. They attended many events and restaurants based on the suggestions of friends and family. I don't think that there was a designed effort to include race as a reoccurring theme, I think that they just called it the way they saw it.

I could be wrong, though.

An interesting note is that I can only remember one instance where someone was castigated for racial prejudice (and even that seemed even handed). More often I saw generational separation then racial separation, as the traditions and values of the past were being lost.

Thanks for writing!