Barbecue Bits: Lessons in Taste


June 23, 1996|By ROB KASPER

There are many ways to look at barbecue, one of the best being looking down at the remains of recently devoured ribs.

Lolis Eric Elie and Frank Stewart are familiar with this vantage point, but they have examined American barbecue from a few other views as well. Elie, a metro-page columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and Stewart, a photographer based in New York, visited 50 barbecue joints recently, primarily in the South and Midwest.

They ate the food but looked beyond the sauce and smoke, focusing on the folks who barbecue and on the communities they come from. The result is a new book, "Smokestack Lighting, Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35). It is a book with stories, photos, bibliography and recipes.

On a recent rainy morning in Maryland, when the authors were holed up in a Washington hotel room and I was holed up in a Baltimore office, we had a long conversation about "cue" and culture.

First we talked about food. The authors said the ribs throughout the Southside of Chicago have varying sauces but all seem to have the same chewy texture. They said they learned the correct way to get the good stuff -- minced pork -- when ordering in North Carolina eateries. Namely, you ask for "outside meat," the part of the pig that has the flavor of the fire.

There was the proper fury expressed over parboiling -- cooking meat in water before it goes in a pit. In their book they quote Ray Robinson Sr., proprietor of the Cozy Corner in Memphis, on the practice. "Once water hits the meat, the meat ain't good no more," Robinson told them. "You need to take it, throw it away and cook greens in that water."

The authors did not explore Maryland, they said, because the barbecue culture is not that strong here.

When asked whether they favor the dry approach to ribs, applying a rub of dry spices to the meat, or the wet approach, marinating ribs in liquid, the authors paused before admitting they leaned toward the dry.

I found this barbecue talk comforting, like listening to an old familiar tune. The book, incidentally, takes its name from a 1956 tune the authors credit with keeping them in good spirits on their journey: Howlin Wolf's version of Chester Burnett's "Smokestack Lighting."

In their book and in our conversation, Elie and Stewart also talked about barbecue and race, barbecue and gender, and the social practices of barbecuing communities -- topics that aren't often explored in books about barbecue.

Elie and Stewart, who are black, said they found only minor differences between barbecue cooked by blacks and barbecue cooked by whites. "We found that in Atlanta if you asked for 'barbecue' and the place was owned by whites, you would get a pulled pork sandwich, and if it was owned by blacks, you tended to get ribs," Elie said.

Region rather than race, Elie continued, is responsible for different styles of barbecue. In Texas, for instance, blacks and whites cook brisket. In Tennessee, both races cook pork shoulders.

As for gender, Elie and Stewart had some interesting theories on why men do most of the outdoor cooking. In the book they quote French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who theorized that roasting food links men to nature, and boiling food is a culture-building activity preferred by women. In conversation, Elie was more direct, saying that men are drawn to barbecue because they like to tame flames and they like the glory that goes with the task.

"Taming a fire, bending it to fit their will fits in with a man's image of himself," Elie said. "Then they like the recognition. In outdoor cooking, you cook a few things but you get a lot of attention."

Elie talked of how, when driving through South Carolina, he was struck by the similarities between the church-going habits and the barbecue-eating habits of the communities. Stopping at Shealy's Bar B-Q Buffet Style in Leesville, S.C., he noticed that the restaurant's sit-with-strangers style of seating resembled the open seating found at church socials.

"There are no private booths or small tables in these places because, as in church, there are only the friends that you've met and those you haven't," he wrote in the book.

Having studied America's barbecue culture, having sampled its pulled pork, its shoulders, its ribs, its whole hog and its beefy brisket, these two men were uniquely qualified to answer a question that had been bothering me for some time. Namely, what is the best dessert to eat after polishing off some barbecue?

The two scholars pondered my question for about five seconds before offering their separate conclusions.

Peach cobbler, said Elie.

"The lemon meringue pie from Hinze's Bar B-Q in Sealy, Texas," said Stewart, passion filling his voice. "That pie is a mile high."

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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