April 23, 2014

Smokestack Lighting

Out of the blue this week, I got an email that brought my attention back to a delicious project David worked on—one of his first as a professional designer, while in the employ at Concrete, the Office of Jilly Simons. So we revisited. We looked at it in our portfolio, and took our copy down off the shelf. And while the book is insignificant when considering the body of work we’ve developed since, decades later Smokestack Lightning continues to loom large in our lives. Its topic is one we are both passionate about: the lore and traditions of American barbecue.

That this email arrived on the day I was hosting a dinner party celebrating Texas barbecue didn’t go unnoticed. Add to this perfect storm the fact that I had prepared authentic Texas sides, according to Lisa Fain’s web chronicle Homesick Texan, well, I was just about stopped in my tracks. Fain’s cole slaw recipe commences with a nod to Lolis Eric Elie, author of Smokestack Lighting.

You might should know this about us, we are mad about barbecue. And while David’s fanaticism didn’t start with Smokestack, it was my first induction. See, I was mistaken all along, I thought what we were doing in the backyard growing up was barbecue. In fact, it was grilling. There was nothing slow about it, and the heat was as high as the flames. Chalk my ignorance up to being a provincial New Yorker. Then I began to right my wrongs. I read the pretty book David designed. The questions came fast and furious. I wanted to know (and taste) more. The book, spectacular in content and imagery, combined with David having grown up in Kansas City as well as Memphis … my fate was sealed. He had an opinion. Many in fact. Educated ones too. I was schooled. And we ate.

David proclaimed Memphis the best in all the land. So we went to the dives, and to the institutions, whenever we visited his folks. Barbecue hunting made required family visits more enticing. And the pork was sublime. Kansas City, she surprised me. Some fast-food looking joint in a mini-mall slapped me silly. It’s like I was awakened, again. I hesitated to admit, I thought it better than Cozy Corner. However, David and I were in agreement that the vinegary ways of North Carolina barbecue didn’t suit us. And then we moved to Texas.

If pressed to pin down one lesson I learned living in Texas, I’d say it was that New Yorkers and Texans are more similar than dissimilar. (I’ll write that ditty one day, but not now). New Yorkers hate hearing this. And want to turn up the fire? Tell a New Yorker that Texans are the best—at anything. Woo-wee! Almost as radical as proposing to David that beef barbecue could ever be better than pork. Well, it’s true. Hashtag truth. Between my small-minded NY ways and David’s Memphis BBQ pride, we were in for a delightful education.

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit.

Zealous was an understatement. And down came the book, again. Honestly, until then, 10+ years after my first read, I didn’t take in the chapter on Texas. Silly me. But I’ve made up for my erroneous ways. From that day forward, we’ve stayed faithful to Texas barbecue. Clear eyes, Full hearts, Can’t lose.

Sadly, the book cover David designed is no longer the one in print. (It’s a collector’s item, available for $1,315.26). Regardless, the inside remains spectacular—even though the text was typeset forced justified.

We’ve grown a a lot in 20 years.








Smokestack Lightning is credited as being designed at Concrete, Chicago, now known as Concrete, the Office of Jilly Simons.