Excerpt from Smokestack Lightning

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Chris Allingham

Staff member
By Way of Introduction

This thing started over a plate of barbecue in Wilson, North Carolina. Barbecue there is different from the national norm. They don't use sweet, tomato-based sauces, and they mostly barbecue whole hogs, not ribs.

At the time of that eating I was employed as the road manager for the Wynton Marsalis Septet, and that fact also has a lot to do with how this came to be. I was getting paid to travel around the world and listen to great music but also to perform menial tasks that became more burdensome and less glamorous with each performance. So I was looking for some other way to earn my living, preferably one that required no resume, no job application, and no regular hours.

Frank was also working with the band at the time, traveling with us and collaborating on a book with Wynton called Sweet Swing Blues on the Road. Every time we went somewhere that was supposed to have good barbecue, he'd ask the promoter where he could get some, and then, by way of warning, he'd say that he grew up in Chicago and Memphis and did not suffer mediocrity in barbecue lightly.

That one meal in North Carolina stayed with us, conjuring memories of barbecue in other places, cooked in different ways, finished with different sauces. We decided then that we would travel the country studying the various conceptions of barbecue and write a book.

We've learned a lot since then. We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense, 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.

With the generally reliable assistance of the 1981 Volvo that came to earn the nickname the Living Legend, we learned just how large barbecue country is.

There was the quick stop for gas in Houston that lasted four days. ("What you have there is an exotic," the mechanic told us. "All them cars--your Porsches, your Ferraris, your Volvos--you cain't just git parts for those cars too easy.") There were those six days in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when we bought our second alternator in as many weeks, and there's that funny groan that began outside Memphis and still persists when the car gets tired. But all in all we spent more time moving on the road that stopped alongside it. Packed in the back seat were a small ice chest and the small library of books and tapes that we came to rely on for sanity, especially the song that became both our title and our theme, Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" ("Who been here, baby, since I been gone?").

We started our tour in Memphis because it was familiar ground to Frank. From there our itinerary was dictated mostly by the barbecue-related events and competitions that happen around this country from spring to fall, from Memphis in May to the Big Pig Jig, but also by the legends of people and places and tastes that our various guides pointed us in the direction of.

On most days we stopped at three or four places, on some days six or eight. On good days we camped in one place and observed and engaged in the luxury of eating only the choicest morsels. To be sure, most of the barbecue we ate was bad. When you spend all of every day critiquing just one small genre of culinary art you get sharp; barbecue is no longer exciting simply because of the Fourth of July rarity of it or the great outdoors freshness of it. If it is to stand out it must truly be good, and just as in all disciplines, there are--in ascending order of rarity--the amateurs, the experts, and the geniuses.

We missed a few places. There's the red oak Santa Maria, California, barbecue with its own special beans, and the Sonoma County barbecue of that California region. And there are all the uncles and aunts and husbands who we were told had the best barbecue in the world, if only we could make it out to Rosebud or Bangor to get some. But we couldn't, and for that we apologize.

So this thing is not encyclopedic or exhaustive. And despite all that we did to avoid false judgments, maybe some of the chefs have been praised for food cooked on their absolute best days while others have been damned for the fault of being in less than top form on the one day in the last thousand that we came by. And by the time this thing is finally printed and bound, some of these people will have retired or sold out or allowed their recipe to be changed just slightly and just tragically on the advice of that son-in-law with the tongue of iron and the mail-order degree in keypunch technology. So it goes.

These things notwithstanding, what we do have is one long summer of the people and the tastes and the places of barbecue that could have been arrived at by no other route.

Excerpted from Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country by Lolis Eric Elie. Reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press.

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