Page 18


A Bob Wells, Bob’s Smokehouse in San Antonio Frank Stewart BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Smoked and the Sublime Meditatin’ the Meaning of Barbecue BY PAUL JENNINGS SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. By Lolis Eric Elie. Photographs by Frank Stewart. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 224 pages. $35.00. slab of ribs is a miserable cut of meattiny slivers of flesh concealed in a mass of bones and muscle, difficult to sea son, easy to burn, almost more trouble than it’s worth. The distribution of the various parts of a slaughtered pig has always been a pretty good indicator of where a particular group of people stood in the general scheme of things, and ribs have usually been reserved for those occupying the low-rent district of the food chain. In the South, that meant mostly Negroes. In other areas of the country, meat packing plants sometimes just threw them away, and more than one famous barbecue place has it roots in the willingness of some cash-strapped entrepreneur to sift through the scrap barrels found outside the factory gate. The transformation of the rib into a mouth-watering delicacy is thus a tribute to the genius and perseverance of generations of African-American cooks. And the recognition of this genius turns out to have some surprising social consequences. A really good ribs joint is likely to be the most integrated restaurant in town, since, as the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes, “more than any other cuisine, barbecue draws the whole of southern society.” The experienced barbecue traveler, the Encyclopedia goes on to point out, is always on the lookout for parking lots where pickups are parked next to expensive importsthe object being to find the one place in town where people from all races and income-tax brackets eat together. Barbecue, along with gospel music and the blues, remains one of the most accessible gateways to African-American culture for non-blacks; and for many white adolescent males in small southern towns, going across the tracks for good barbecue remains a minor rite of passage. In Texas, the story of barbecue becomes more complex and subtle. Here the great Southern barbecue tradition runs smack into the descendants of German and Czech sausage makers in Central Texas, who turned the scraps from their butcher shops into a profitable sideline. From South Texas comes a whole new palette of spices. Traveling west across Texas, the change becomes apparent as soon as you cross Highway 77. The heat in the sauce moves up a couple of notches, beef and sausage start appearing on the menu, and the pitmen are just as likely to be white or His-, panic as black. By the time you hit Kreuz Market in Lockhart \(mysteriously misspelled in the melt-in-your-mouth beef served on butcher paper along with saltine crackers, a fresh avocado and chilies, and a Big Red soda pop, you realize you are dealing with something new, something that has emerged out of a welter of different, often conflicting, cultures and transcended all of thema rare work of culinary art designed to satisfy not only the intellectual faculties of the human spirit, but the digestive ones as well. Lolis Eric Elie, author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, is a true student of barbecue, in the sense that he starts off knowing almost THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 OCTOBER 11, 1996