Porky’s Pulpit: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Barbecue

Today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember fallen military heroes who gave their lives trying to protect the American way of life (and to find great deals on new cars, household goods, and other manifestations of consumerism runk amok, ahem, the American way of life).  Yet despite the heroic efforts of generations of brave men and women, one of America’s proudest institutions is under attack.  Indeed, like so many great American traditions before it–sex, drugs and rock & roll, to name only a few–barbecue is continuously affronted by the nattering na(shish-ka)bobs of negativism.

Every week my email inbox is filled with anti-barbecue propaganda, ranging from basically benign barbs to maliciously malignant missives.  Among the attacks I’ve seen on the great American institution, in the past week alone, are:

-On the benign side, confidence-suppressing articles about dealing with problems like “improper flaming” and other possible afflictions of the grill.  Not since Viagra ads first hit the airwaves have America’s charcoal-wielding men had such cause for performance anxiety.

-Articles about barbecue’s supposed role in the epidemic of obesity plaguing our nation’s collective midsection.

-News reports that imply barbecue may lead to incidents of violent crime and even natural disasters.

-Malignant stories discussing barbecue’s supposed link to, well, cancer; anyone want to learn about “7 Ways to Cancer-Proof Your Barbecue”?

-The burden placed on barbecue to solve America’s ongoing economic woes and rebuild its diplomatic ties at the highest levels.

-Common dangers, such as household fires, tenuously linked to barbecuing and played up for maximum dramatic effect on barbecue-friendly occasions like Memorial Day and Independence Day.  Even in BBQ strongholds like West Texas, the BBQ-baiting media have tracked down otherwise self-respecting firefighters who “are sending out a warning [that barbecue] might not be worth the risk.”  As current West Odessa Volunteer Fire Chief, and possible Past-President of the West Texas Brussel Sprouts Defense League, Jimmy Ellis put it in the same article, “One spark and the whole city could go up like a keg of dynamite.”  Humph.

-Lest the above dynamite-level dangers not be enough, other alarmists warn of the risk of contracting trichinosis and other food-borne illnesses.  Luckily, in a rare act of bravery, the USDA recently released updated guidelines on cooking meat, and finally admitted that cooking pork to 145 degrees is sufficiently safe (as tenderloin lovers have known for decades).

As if the above affronts on America’s barbecue tradition were not enough, the Al Gore set has devoted a disproportionate amount of effort to pin the future collapse of the earth’s ecosystems on barbecue.  Indeed, it appears that barbecue is now THE grease-stained culprit of global warming. “Are barbecue grills destroying the planet?,” asks an article in the May 27th issue of The Week, just the most recent in a series of attempts to make backyard pit bosses feel as guilty as possible for their selfless act of smoking meat instead of gassing it or, lord forbid, torturing it in an electric oven.

Finally, the forces of evil have stepped up their efforts to challenge the most fundamental of American barbecue values: the near-biblical truth that barbecue is by definition meat.  Indeed, masochistic vegetarians across the country write morally bankrupt drivel like this piece that tries to nudge meat aside and claim a spot on the Weber for veggies (it is consoling that the folks in the picture that runs with the article look famine-stricken and sport forced smiles that quietly scream, “For God’s sake, let me trade this pink polo shirt for a slab of ribs”).

While vegetarians take pains to inflate their bloated self-worth, and to maintain their emaciated figures, by choking down Bulgur Veggie Burgers with Lime Mayonnaise and the like, I’m sticking up for the American way.  I’ll be out back on my flammable wood deck cooking up some carbon-heavy, cancer-inducing pork butt to serve with bacon-flavored greens and calorie-full hush puppies.  After all, it’s Memorial Day and I think that our fallen heroes would have it no other way.

By Golly, Barbecue and Hot Tamales

As the summer winds down, it’s high time for a road trip.  After all, even Porky LeSwine can’t eat North Carolina barbecue at every meal.  Sometimes he needs to eat barbecue from other states (and refer to himself in the third person).  So strap on your computer’s seat belt and come along for a ride to the Mississippi Delta, where tamales are king.

That's Willie in front, chomping on a big cigar.

I recently visited family in Illinois, and while there my father-in-law took me on a short trip to Mississippi (thanks Bill!).  How long did it take us to travel from Illinois to Mississippi?  Just a few minutes, since we took  a shortcut by stopping at Willie’s Homemade Tamales and Smokehouse in Sparland, Illinois. 

Willie, who told me he moved to Illinois from Greenville, Mississippi 33 years ago, has been making his own tamales for years.  He started out selling them from a pushcart near the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois.  About five years ago he took a leap of faith and converted an old gas station into a restaurant in nearby Sparland.  He now sells various kinds of barbecue (ribs, sausage, pulled pork, pork chops and more) alongside his trademark tamales.

But what do tamales have to do with Mississippi? Continue reading

A Shot Across the Bow: Dickey’s Moving Onto Sacred Land

The news out of Raleigh is not good, ladies and gentlemen.  Not since the days of British colonial rule has our state witnessed such a threat to our way of life.  According to the New Raleigh blog, mediocre Texas-based barbecue chain (my words, not their’s) Dickey’s Barbecue Pit will be opening up a store in the Progress Energy Building this fall. 

The Progress Energy Building just so happens to be directly across the street from a certain 70-plus year old local BBQ institution–Clyde Cooper’s.  Shouldn’t the North Carolina Utilities Commission, charged with overseeing companies like Progress Energy, regulate this affront on our state’s values?!  For all we know, Progress Energy is using power customers’ fees to subsidize Dickey’s rent in some sort of Halliburtonesque scheme.* 

Now, in my humble opinion, Clyde Cooper’s ranks squarely in the middle of the pack of NC barbecue joints, but I’m still willing to go to bat for them against the evil forces of mass produced corporate Texas ‘cue.  Let’s make a stand, draw a line in the sand/Davie Street asphalt, and send as many people to eat at Cooper’s during Dickey’s opening weeks as possible. And if you have a “Mess with Texas” t-shirt then this is as good a time as any to wear it.

*Note to Progress Energy’s legal staff: this allegation has no basis in the truth and is presumably patently false. However, the BBQ Jew Legal Department is fully prepared to defend my freedom of speech and dares you to find any court in NC that would take a stand against the state’s barbecue tradition in favor of Texas-sympathizers like yourselves.

BBQ&A: Bob Kantor of Memphis Minnie’s

[Note: Follow this link-Kantor BBQ&A-for an easier to read, .pdf version of the interview.]

Bob Kantor is one of the country’s best known Jews who barbecues. Born in New York, in 1970 Bob moved to San Francisco where he attended the California Culinary Academy.  He spent the next ten years as a chef in the high-end fine dining sector.  Then he became obsessed with barbecue.

Kantor soon traded fine dining for a plenty fine BBQ joint and he’s never looked back. He now describes himself as “not-quite-retired,” and spends much of his time “on the on the road in my RV with the Fabulous Gail Wilson and a white Jeep Wrangler with black spots.”  Kantor’s Jeep is nicknamed The Cowntess, and he cooks a mean beef brisket, but he knows a thing or two about pig too. 

Recently we interviewed Kantor about surviving a BBQ-free youth in Brooklyn, his mid-life conversion to fundamentalist barbecue beliefs, and his predictions for the future of the world (at least when it comes to ‘cue).  We can’t think of a better post to run as we celebrate the one-year anniversary of this website.  Enjoy.

BBQ Jew: Where did you grow up? And while you’re reminiscing, can you recall a fond childhood memory of food?
Bob Kantor: I grew up as a chubby little Jewish kid in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. I remember as a child our Rabbi coming to visit us – I don’t recall why he was visiting us, but I have this very clear picture in my mind of my mother throwing open the kitchen window, and flapping her apron trying to rid the apartment of the wonderful aroma of the bacon sizzling on the stove.

BBQ Jew: Hmm, that ain’t kosher.  Speaking of which, when did you first encounter barbecue? Was it love at first bite?
BK: Like most folks outside of the traditional barbecue regions, I had no idea what real barbecue was for most of my life. My first experience with real barbecue came during the period I was travelling around the South researching the great American regional cuisine that barbecue is. It was absolutely love at first bite. Being an inveterate carnivore and growing up the son of a butcher, it was a revelation. Meat was good, but the slow smoking added a whole other dimension.

BBQ Jew: What drew you to the barbecue business and why barbecue instead of some other food (not that we need any convincing)?
BK:
My discovery of barbecue was very serendipitous. It came as a result of some consulting that I was doing at the time for a restaurant owner who was looking for new menu items. He asked me what I thought about putting barbecue on the menu. I said, “Well let me see what I can come up with.” 

That was the defining moment in my career as a Barbejew. During the course of the next several weeks I researched barbecue. I was immediately smitten by the long-standing tradition and the fact that this was truly one of the few American regional cuisines that we have. Guess I’m a sucker for tradition. I told my client, “No, you can’t do barbecue – it’s not something that one just puts on a menu.”  And so began my journey over the next several years learning about BBQ. It was during this time that I asked myself, how it is possible that San Francisco, one of the food capitals of the world, has no true representation of this great cuisine?

BBQ Jew: We’ll let you talk more about BBQ in San Francisco soon, but first… Cooking barbecue probably didn’t come natural for a yankee Jew like yourself – how’d you learn?
BK: Being a trained chef, I knew how to cook. I knew how meat reacts to heat. The addition of smoke was another ingredient to add to my list. It was then mostly a matter of learning technique. I joined just about every barbecue organization around the country that I could. I got mailing lists from these organizations and would write to their membership asking if I could visit with them and talk barbecue. They were a huge help. I became a certified barbecue judge and spent a lot of time eating and talking about championship barbecue and developing a taste for what good BBQ was. I also took classes offered by various organizations and individuals to build on my technique.

Lastly, I listened to some of the old timers talk about the tradition and the lore of barbecue. There’s a great story told by an old timer about how they could judge the temperature of their pit by watching the height of the flies hovering over the Continue reading

BBQ&A: H. Kent Craig, BBQ Blogger & Author

[Note: Follow this link-Craig BBQ&A-for an easier to read, .pdf version of the interview.]

 
For ten years North Carolina native H. Kent Craig ran the most visited website dedicated to NC barbecue, “Kent’s North Carolina-Style BBQ Page.”  In 2008, Craig moved out of state and stopped adding content to his website.  In late 2009, he shut the site down entirely, leaving a large grease-stained void in cyberspace. 
 
That’s the bad news. 
 
The good news is that Craig has compiled the information from his website, and added some new content, and recently published Kent’s Carolina Barbecue Book, available at Amazon.com.  Not long ago we “sat down” with Craig (in the very modern, virtual sense where we are not within 500 miles of each other) and discussed his book, his exile in Oklahoma, and plumbing.  Oh, and we talked barbecue too.
 
 BBQ Jew: Let’s start with a tough question.  Rumors are flying that the “H.” in your name stands for “Hog.”  Care to confirm or deny this rumor?
H. Kent Craig: The “H.” stands for “Harold” which a couple of people have been shot for addressing me as (just kidding, they were just wounded a little!). Actually, the “H.”/Harold was my father’s first name and mainly to keep from being called “Craig Jr.” or “Harry” (guaranteed death!) I started to use “Kent” as a small child as my given name and it stuck and it suits me. 

BBQ Jew: Okay, we’ve put that rumor to rest but we’ve now determined that you have three first names–Harold, Kent and Craig.  Never mind, moving on… Where were you raised?  And when and where did you first sink your teeth into North Carolina barbecue?  Was it love at first bite?
H.KC:
I was raised in what was then a small hamlet outside of Raleigh called Cary [Editor's note: population 3,400 in 1960], which has since become a much larger burg with around 130,000 residents and has the distinction of being the bedroom community for Research Triangle Park. My mother’s parents moved to Cary in the 1920′s so I somewhat proudly call myself a 3rd-generation Cary-ite. Because all of Cary’s population boom has been caused by scientists and researchers and others adjunct to all the R&D facilities immigrating to Cary from other parts of the country, it’s an old but true joke amongst the dozen or so actual natives that are left that “Cary” is an acronym for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.”

My first memories of NC BBQ were from Johnson’s BBQ in Cary on E. Chatham St., now long gone. I remember eating there when I was just two or three and yes, they would have been given a “4 pig” best-of-the-best rating.

BBQ Jew: Wow, talking to a 3rd generation native of Cary  is a bit like talking to a brontosaurus.   Speaking of ancient history, there were few NC barbecue-focused websites around back in the dark ages of the 1990s when you debuted your site.  Why did you decide to start a website about NC barbecue?
H.KC: I decided to start my NC BBQ Page mainly because I thought, with sincere respect to Dave Lineback’s personal site where, like mine, he had an NC-BBQ-centric section within and which was a good site and Shinola’s site which was Continue reading

Porky’s Pulpit: New Year’s Resolutions

Before we get too deep into 2010, here are my personal (PER) and BBQ Jew related (BBQ) New Year’s resolutions:

PER 1) In order to protect the earth and preserve it for my children, I will cut down on my vehicle miles traveled.
BBQ 1) In order to protect the art of BBQ and preserve it for my children, I will drive farther to support traditional wood-cooked barbecue joints.

PER 2) I will spend more time with my family.
BBQ 2) I will find the time to write more Hogkus.   

PER 3) I will watch my diet, in order to cut calories and lose weight.
BBQ 3) I will try to eat barbecue on average at least once per week. 

PER 4) I will not make light of the swine flu.
BBQ 4) I will only eat dead swine, and will not kiss live swine, to avoid the swine flu.

I think that about covers it.

BBQ Book Review: Smokestack Lightning

I recently read Smokestack Lightning and strongly recommend you drop whatever you are doing to buy a copy right now.  Although this book only includes one chapter on North Carolina barbecue (and it is a chapter shared with–gasp–South Carolina), it is one of the best books on barbecue ever written.  Smokestack Lightning–the title taken from the classic Howlin’ Wolf song–is in small part a barbecue guide book, in even smaller part a cookbook and in large part a sociological treatise on American culture.  Whichever part you’re most interested in, all parts of Smokestack Lighting are well worth reading.   

Author Lolis Eric Elie, who when he set out to write the book was the road manager for the Winton Marsalis Septet, writes in the preface: “Our thesis was this. Barbecue reflects and embodies all the important themes in American history and culture–region, race, migration, immigration, religion, politics.  Yet this art, so vital to our national identity was dying or at least endangered.  We were half right…  we were also half wrong.” 

In the introduction, Elie continues to explain the underlying purpose of the book.  “We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense,” he writes, “and that it is a more appropriate metaphor than any other American food.  Barbecue alone encompasses the high- and lowbrows, the sacred and the profane, the urban and the rural, the learned and the unlettered, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the reds, and the whites.  Barbecue, then, is a fitting barometer for the changes, good and bad, that have taken place in the country, and this book, ostensibly about that food, is really about the people and places and consistencies and changes that produce it.”

As the quotes above indicate, there are some pretty heady themes in Smokestack Lightning.  It’s a refreshing change to read a barbecue book that goes so deep into its subject–well past the hickory and mesquite smoke, well past the pork and beef, and straight into the marrow of American culture, history and race relations.  But despite all the serious themes that help carry the book forward, Smokestack Lightning stops short of being too serious for its own good and certainly is never dull.  Quite the opposite, it is full of rich storytelling and humor.  One funny anecdote has a relative of notoriously surly jazz legend Miles Davis’ trying to impress him by bringing him barbecue from his hometown of East St. Louis, where snoots are the specialty.  After traveling by plane with this carefully packaged barbecue treat for Miles, the only response the relative gets from him is, “Motherf*&ker, why you f%*k up my snoots?”

Smokestack Lightning was first published in 1996 and the second edition was printed in 2005.  It is not currently in print but it is available used on Amazon.com and other sites.  The fact that the book is a few years out of date only adds to the timeless nature of the stories, the people featured, and the splendid black and white photography by Frank Stewart.

All Aboard the Oink Express

All aboard the Oink Express!

All aboard the Oink Express!

Awhile back we got a question from an out of state reader about where to find decent mail order barbecue.  We recommended King’s Oink Express, since King’s is the only joint we know of that offers such a service as part of their everyday business (we’ve heard of some other joints that will ship pork upon special request).  I am pleased to report that a friend of mine who lives in California stepped up to the (barbecue) plate  and decided to try the Oink Express.

My friend–he prefers to be known as Governor Schwarzenoinker
to give the proper gravitas to his comments–reports that his Oink Express order arrived quickly, still frozen in the styrofoam cooler and accompanied by clear reheating instructions (pictured above).  But how did the pork-in-a-box taste?  Continue reading

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