BBQ&A: Lolis Eric Elie, Writer and Filmmaker

America's least successful vegetarian?

[Note: Follow this link–Elie BBQ&A–for an easier to read .pdf version of the interview.] When it comes to barbecue, Lolis Eric Elie has a checkered past.  It’s not that he wrote a three times weekly column for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans from 1995 to 2009.  Or that he is on the staff of the new David Simon series, Treme, which debuts on HBO in April and has nothing to do with ‘cue.  It’s certainly not that he has edited and authored two essential books about barbecue, Corn Bread Nation Vol. 2: The United States of Barbecue and Smokestack Lightning, respectively.  Nor that he has produced two documentary films, including Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue.  None of these parts of Elie’s bio concern me.  His checkered past?  He once admitted to going through a vegetarian phase.   

Despite his past vegetable transgressions, Elie’s extensive barbecue background makes him the perfect subject for an interview.  In the spirit of carnivores everywhere, Elie was kind enough to chew the fat with me on a variety of subjects.  In the below interview, we discuss the “disturbing trend” of North Carolina barbecue joints switching to gas/electric cooking, why–ahem–New York barbecue has its advantages, and the newspaper industry’s slow “suicide,” among other topics.  Dig in…  

BBQ Jew: I understand you were raised in Louisiana.  When and how did a po’ boy-, beignet- and gumbo-eating New Orleaner like yourself discover barbecue?  Seriously, Louisiana isn’t widely known for its BBQ, so what was your introduction to barbecue and how did you decide it was worth writing a book about?
Lolis Eric Elie: I was on the road with Frank Stewart, the photographer, and we were working for Wynton Marsalis. Frank grew up in Memphis and Chicago and he came up with the idea of doing a book on barbecue. Growing up in Louisiana, I had some great backyard barbecue. But there were certainly no commercial establishments to rival the best of Memphis or Kansas City.   Our initial book proposal was a pretty light romp through the world of barbecue that would compare and contrasts the various styles. After a week in Memphis, researching the sample chapter, I knew that barbecue could be the focus of a serious book about American culture.    

BBQ Jew: Since Smokestack Lightning was first published in 1996, barbecue has gained far more mainstream attention across the U.S. and beyond.  In fact, it’s probably one of the hottest American food trends, from the lowly McRib on up to fine dining establishments.  How do you feel about barbecue’s newfound status?
LEL: The growth of barbecue is a mixed blessing. If the big money restauranteurs did not find it worth investing in, the art form might all but die. Mom and Pop restaurants are dying in droves for a variety of reasons. But the emergence of barbecue in, say, a media capital like New York helps keep us on the radar of the major media in a way that we couldn’t be if, for example, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, AL was the capital of the barbecue world. 

   
And, I tell you something else. While we might argue about the quality of barbecue in New York (I’ll say it’s good and getting better by leaps and bounds) one thing it has head and shoulders above everywhere else. They actually cook their side dishes and use fresh ingredients while most folks in barbecue country are opening up cans.It’s always been funny to me to hear a guy go on for hours about how he uses only a certain kind of wood and how nobody but his oldest son knows his sauce recipe. What he won’t tell you is that Campbell’s Soup Co. and Sysco have the recipes for everything else he serves. Continue reading
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