Cookbooks - Lightning strikes again

"Barbecue is the quintessential American food, perhaps the only one large enough to reconcile the lies and myths out of which the fabric of our national truth has been woven," opines Eric Lolis Elie near the end of his book, Smokestack Lighting: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. Elie's statement wasn't conjured from casual observation or mere intellectual deliberation. He and photographer Frank Stewart spent a summer on the road and threw down on a mess of 'cue to reach such panoptic conclusions.

Originally published in 1996 and reprinted this year by Ten Speed Press, the book chronicles Elie and Stewart's crusades through Memphis, Texas, Chicago, Kansas City, and Arkansas and the Carolinas. One chapter is devoted to the barbecue competition circuit, including a jaunt to the annual Big Pig Jig in Vienna, Ga. (which will be held this year Fri.-Sat., Sept. 30-Oct. 1), and another highlights the standout women who've succeeded in a male-dominated cooking genre.

Smokestack isn't so much a guide about where to eat barbecue or how to cook it, though it addresses that and recipes are provided. Like all important, enduring treatises on food, the book is a snapshot of the culture around barbecue — the labor that goes into preparing its myriad variations, the crusty characters who preserve the traditions, and the funky digs in which they serve it.

Elie isn't afraid to relate the letdowns, either. All the mediocre meat he and Stewart eat only sweetens the narrative when they find the good stuff: "Frank and I take one bite, look across the table at each other, and break into the smile that comes from having tasted the truth. This is barbecue of the first order."

In an updated preface, Elie notes that many of the pit masters mentioned in the book have since died, which hoists this witty, gritty, passionate epistle into new turf: historical narrative.

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