Smokestack Lightning Captures the Simpler, Pre-Barbecue Boom Times in America

Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.

Monk: In the early 2000’s, a decade or so before the barbecue boom of the 2010’s, Lolis Eric Elie, wrote a hybrid barbecue/great American road trip/recipe book. Subtitled “Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country,” Smokestack Lightning is named after a song by the blues legend Howlin’ Wolf and was released in 2005. It was initially inspired by Elie’s travels with the Wynton Marsalis band where they would always seek out good barbecue while on tour. More specifically, it was inspired by a stop in Wilson, NC where they tasted barbecue and ribs from Bill’s Barbecue. That taste of barbecue sparked this book documenting an epic barbecue odyssey.

Smokestack Lightning is a wandering travelogue through some specific barbecue cities or regions, sometimes with a plan but oftentimes just whatever Elie and his photographer/partner-in-crime Frank Stewart stumble into (the chapter on Chicago in particular) in their vehicle, a Volvo wagon they dubbed the “Living Legend.”

Not only do they explore the restaurants of barbecue hotbeds in Tennessee, Chicago, Texas, Kansas City, and the Carolinas, Elie and Stewart also take a dip into the competition scene at Memphis in May and the Big Pig Jig in Vienna, Georgia. Along the way, they document both the food they taste and the people they meet as sorts of cultural anthropologists. Stewart photographs are sprinkled throughout the book, and while I appreciate the beauty of black and white photography, I can’t help but wish the book was printed in color.

On their travels, Elie and Stewart find a lot of mediocre-to-bad barbecue but there are one or two bright spots everywhere they go that are adhering to the old ways of barbecue smoked over wood – Vera’s Backyard Barbecue in Brownsville, TX, Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, TX, Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, NC, Cozy Corner in Memphis, to name a few.

Lolis Eric Elie has recently dipped back into the barbecue book world, co-writing Rodney Scott’s barbecue book “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” which was released in 2021. I’d love to see him do a sequel to Smokestack Lightning now to see how much the barbecue world has changed 20 years later, for better and for worse. Regardless, “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in Barbecue Country” is a worthy documentation of the time before America’s barbecue explosion that was to come.

Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in Barbecue Country is available new and used on Amazon

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