We knew that Sheana spent a good deal of time in New Orleans in addition to Sonoma, and when we saw her in May we discussed the new HBO series, “Tremé,” named after the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. The series had kicked off in April and I had quickly become an avid fan.
During our discussion Sheana mentioned that she had a friend in New Orleans named Lolis Eric Elie, a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who had been working as one of the writers for the series. Lolis had earlier directed a movie named "Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans” about the long and rich history of the area, one of America’s oldest black neighborhoods. Needless to say, he sounded like a very interesting guy.
Not long after we saw her in Sonoma in May, we heard from Sheana that she was helping to organize a dinner in Sonoma to celebrate a visit by Lolis. We initially assumed it had something to do with Tremé, but learned that the dinner would instead feature the showing of a movie based on a book about barbecue written by Lolis with Frank Stewart entitled “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country” (a reference to the Howlin’ Wolf blues song). Nancy, Alex, Cass and I decided to attend, and this past Sunday evening drove up to Sonoma to the event site of Wild Thyme Catering which was hosting the event.
Happily it was a bit warmer and sunnier in Sonoma than in Sausalito. Tables had been set up in the courtyard and we had a chance to meet and chat with Lolis and some of the other guests during the reception that preceded the dinner while we listened to the Sonoma-based blues band, The Hellhounds.
In addition to some light snacks, wine and beer was served during the reception. Happily the wines included a selection from Highway 12 winery, which has become one of our favorites since Sheana served some of their wines during our family event during May.
In addition, I had a chance to meet Alec Stefansky with Uncommon Brewers who had come up from Santa Cruz for the event with some of UB’s brews. In the spirit of the evening, Alec suggested I try one of their relatively new products, Bacon Brown Ale which is, in fact, made with bacon. It was probably something I would not have tried, but it had a beautiful color and a pleasant smoky flavor with an aftertaste that reminded me of “mugicha” - a Japanese barley tea drunk cold during the summer.
Before long it was time for dinner and we all formed a line in front of the incredible buffet spread that Sheana and the Wild Thyme folks had prepared for us.
In addition to the dishes prepared by Sheana and Wild Thyme, we were also fortunate to have Bob Cantor and his crew from Memphis Minnie’s in the Haight there with their Memphis-style pastrami. Although Smokestack Lightning focused on the South, Lolis mentions Bob in the book and has also reviewed Memphis Minnie’s favorably in the past, so it was a very appropriate local representative.
In addition to some of their own dishes, as you will see from the menu, Wild Thyme also prepared a number of dishes based on the recipes in Smokestack Lightning. Here is a shot of my plate after I managed to get it back to the table.
Of the dishes prepared from Smokestack Lightning, the Arkansas Trav’ler barbequed beans (very much like a cassoulet - see the recipe that follows) and Lolis’ mother’s potato salad were my favorites.
Memphis Minnie’s pastrami and Sheana’s pulled pork were also both excellent.
As dinner wound down and the sky darkened, The Hellhounds played their final number and Sheana moved to the stage to introduce Lolis. Lolis talked a bit about his book and the movie, and also told us about the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The SFA’s mission statement is as follows:
“The SFA documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We stage symposia on food culture, produce documentary films, publish compendiums of great writing, and—perhaps most importantly—preserve, promote, and chronicle the region’s culinary standard bearers.”
Before showing his own film, Lolis showed us two short barbecue-oriented documentaries produced by the SFA, both of which can be viewed on the SFA website. The first, the first “Cut/Chop/Cook” profiles Scott's Bar-B-Q in Hemingway, South Carolina, which was also the focus of a New York Times article. The second, “Capitol Q,” features the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, which National Geographic recognized in 1988 as the “barbecue capital of the world.”
There is a wealth of information on the SFA website, including a site entitled “The Southern Barbecue Trail”. They also host an annual symposium each year in October in Oxford. Who knows - I may have to try to attend some year!
We thoroughly enjoyed the dinner, the company and all the films, and learned a great deal. It was an evening very well spent.