I recently read Smokestack Lightning and strongly recommend you drop whatever you are doing to buy a copy right now. Although this book only includes one chapter on North Carolina barbecue (and it is a chapter shared with–gasp–South Carolina), it is one of the best books on barbecue ever written. Smokestack Lightning–the title taken from the classic Howlin’ Wolf song–is in small part a barbecue guide book, in even smaller part a cookbook and in large part a sociological treatise on American culture. Whichever part you’re most interested in, all parts of Smokestack Lighting are well worth reading.
Author Lolis Eric Elie, who when he set out to write the book was the road manager for the Winton Marsalis Septet, writes in the preface: “Our thesis was this. Barbecue reflects and embodies all the important themes in American history and culture–region, race, migration, immigration, religion, politics. Yet this art, so vital to our national identity was dying or at least endangered. We were half right… we were also half wrong.”
In the introduction, Elie continues to explain the underlying purpose of the book. “We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense,” he writes, “and that it is a more appropriate metaphor than any other American food. Barbecue alone encompasses the high- and lowbrows, the sacred and the profane, the urban and the rural, the learned and the unlettered, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the reds, and the whites. Barbecue, then, is a fitting barometer for the changes, good and bad, that have taken place in the country, and this book, ostensibly about that food, is really about the people and places and consistencies and changes that produce it.”
As the quotes above indicate, there are some pretty heady themes in Smokestack Lightning. It’s a refreshing change to read a barbecue book that goes so deep into its subject–well past the hickory and mesquite smoke, well past the pork and beef, and straight into the marrow of American culture, history and race relations. But despite all the serious themes that help carry the book forward, Smokestack Lightning stops short of being too serious for its own good and certainly is never dull. Quite the opposite, it is full of rich storytelling and humor. One funny anecdote has a relative of notoriously surly jazz legend Miles Davis’ trying to impress him by bringing him barbecue from his hometown of East St. Louis, where snoots are the specialty. After traveling by plane with this carefully packaged barbecue treat for Miles, the only response the relative gets from him is, “Motherf*&ker, why you f%*k up my snoots?”
Smokestack Lightning was first published in 1996 and the second edition was printed in 2005. It is not currently in print but it is available used on Amazon.com and other sites. The fact that the book is a few years out of date only adds to the timeless nature of the stories, the people featured, and the splendid black and white photography by Frank Stewart.