BBQ&A: Anoop Desai, Barbecue Hero and American Idol

Picture by J Squared Photography

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumnus Anoop Desai is perhaps best known as the author of an undergraduate honors thesis in American Studies entitled Why Barbecue Matters in the South.  The 60-page paper takes a scholarly look at southern culture through the grease-streaked lens of barbecue.  “If one examines the Durkheimian paradigm in relation to North Carolina barbecue,” Desai writes, “then North Carolinians are divided into two clans of the same ethnic group… there are clear divisions between the eastern and western styles.” Heady stuff indeed, but amazingly Desai’s work in the field of American Studies is not his only claim to fame…

Follow this link to read the interview with Anoop Desai. 

If you want to read Desai’s honors thesis on barbecue, click here.

BBQ&A: Michael Stern, Road Foodie

Michael Stern, along with his writing partner Jane Stern, have authored more than 40 books, including the wildly popular Roadfood series.  They also write a recurring column for Gourmet magazine and maintain a lively, interactive website that features restaurant write-ups, recipes, user forums and more.  The two are also frequent guests on The Splendid Table, which airs on National Public Radio stations across the country. 

Michael’s biggest career misstep to date was being kind enough to mention BBQJew.com in a web post way back in 2009.  Emboldened by our good fortune, we set out to track him down for an interview.  We caught up with Michael in between Roadfood travels and peppered him with questions about North Carolina barbecue. 

Follow this link to read the interview.

BBQ&A: Jim Early, NC Barbecue Society Founder

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

Jim Early is a good old fashioned barbecue renaissance man.  A native of Henderson, NC, Early graduated from Wake Forest University law school and practiced as an attorney for many years.  His bio notes that, “In addition to being an avid and accomplished hunter, fisherman, and gourmet cook, he also rides and brokers Tennessee walking horses, breeds and trains English Setters and Pointers, flies with his friends in hot air balloons and WWII war birds, restores British cars and classic Chris Craft mahogany speed boats, paints, writes, plays in bands and loves to dance.”

While the above hobbies and accomplishments are interesting in their own right, most relevant to this website is the fact that Early founded the North Carolina Barbecue Society (NCBS).  In 2007, he left his law practice to focus solely on NCBS, which has a mission “to preserve North Carolina’s barbecue history and culture and to secure North Carolina’s rightful place as the Barbecue Capital of the World.”

In addition to founding NCBS, Early authored The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy, which remains the most comprehensive guidebook of NC barbecue joints (and retains a prime spot in my car’s glove box).  He has also authored a cookbook, leads business retreats, and makes presentations on work-life balance and stress reduction.  Recently we added to Early’s stress by asking him a book’s worth of questions, which he was kind enough to answer. 

BBQ Jew: In researching The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy, you visited all 100 counties in North Carolina and ate at 228 restaurants.  How long did this field research take and what did you learn from the experience?
Jim Early: How I went about doing the field research for The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy is described on pages 17-20 of the book.  I wanted the research to be current and I pushed myself as hard as I possibly could to practice law 14-15 hours a day Monday through Thursday and drive to the area I was going to work and work 18 hour days Friday and Saturday in the field.  Sunday morning I ate my first meal since Thursday and drove home to do 6-7 hours dictation and crash.  This was my life for 6 months plus in 2001.  Then I wrote the book and went through all the publishing hoops, distribution hoops, etc.  The whole process was about 4,000 hours, 22,000+ miles, 2,000+ people, 100 counties and 228 BBQ places.  To my knowledge no one else has done a BBQ guide book that is this complete, this  well  researched  and invested the time that I invested to complete the project.  I learned that that there was a reason no one else had done such a project.  The price is higher than most people are willing to pay.  I have written several cook books and numerous magazine articles since I wrote The Best Tar Heel Barbecue, but they have been a walk in the park compared to the efforts I put into that book.

Some of the things I learned from the field research are that there are, to my knowledge, less than 30 old fashioned family owned BBQ places in NC that cook over pits fueled with live wood coals or charcoal and Continue reading

BBQ&A: Lolis Eric Elie, Writer and Filmmaker

America's least successful vegetarian?

[Note: Follow this link–Elie BBQ&A–for an easier to read .pdf version of the interview.] When it comes to barbecue, Lolis Eric Elie has a checkered past.  It’s not that he wrote a three times weekly column for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans from 1995 to 2009.  Or that he is on the staff of the new David Simon series, Treme, which debuts on HBO in April and has nothing to do with ‘cue.  It’s certainly not that he has edited and authored two essential books about barbecue, Corn Bread Nation Vol. 2: The United States of Barbecue and Smokestack Lightning, respectively.  Nor that he has produced two documentary films, including Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue.  None of these parts of Elie’s bio concern me.  His checkered past?  He once admitted to going through a vegetarian phase.   

Despite his past vegetable transgressions, Elie’s extensive barbecue background makes him the perfect subject for an interview.  In the spirit of carnivores everywhere, Elie was kind enough to chew the fat with me on a variety of subjects.  In the below interview, we discuss the “disturbing trend” of North Carolina barbecue joints switching to gas/electric cooking, why–ahem–New York barbecue has its advantages, and the newspaper industry’s slow “suicide,” among other topics.  Dig in…  

BBQ Jew: I understand you were raised in Louisiana.  When and how did a po’ boy-, beignet- and gumbo-eating New Orleaner like yourself discover barbecue?  Seriously, Louisiana isn’t widely known for its BBQ, so what was your introduction to barbecue and how did you decide it was worth writing a book about?
Lolis Eric Elie: I was on the road with Frank Stewart, the photographer, and we were working for Wynton Marsalis. Frank grew up in Memphis and Chicago and he came up with the idea of doing a book on barbecue. Growing up in Louisiana, I had some great backyard barbecue. But there were certainly no commercial establishments to rival the best of Memphis or Kansas City.   Our initial book proposal was a pretty light romp through the world of barbecue that would compare and contrasts the various styles. After a week in Memphis, researching the sample chapter, I knew that barbecue could be the focus of a serious book about American culture.    

BBQ Jew: Since Smokestack Lightning was first published in 1996, barbecue has gained far more mainstream attention across the U.S. and beyond.  In fact, it’s probably one of the hottest American food trends, from the lowly McRib on up to fine dining establishments.  How do you feel about barbecue’s newfound status?
LEL: The growth of barbecue is a mixed blessing. If the big money restauranteurs did not find it worth investing in, the art form might all but die. Mom and Pop restaurants are dying in droves for a variety of reasons. But the emergence of barbecue in, say, a media capital like New York helps keep us on the radar of the major media in a way that we couldn’t be if, for example, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, AL was the capital of the barbecue world. 

   
And, I tell you something else. While we might argue about the quality of barbecue in New York (I’ll say it’s good and getting better by leaps and bounds) one thing it has head and shoulders above everywhere else. They actually cook their side dishes and use fresh ingredients while most folks in barbecue country are opening up cans.It’s always been funny to me to hear a guy go on for hours about how he uses only a certain kind of wood and how nobody but his oldest son knows his sauce recipe. What he won’t tell you is that Campbell’s Soup Co. and Sysco have the recipes for everything else he serves. Continue reading

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

BBQ&A: Jim Noble, Chef & Restaurateur

Jim at work on one of his non-barbecue side projects

Jim at work on one of his non-barbecue side projects

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

Jim Noble is a real-deal Charlotte restaurateur with two establishments in the Queen City and three more in the works. Yet, in his heart of hearts, that heart beats for barbecue (It’s kind of a Russian doll thing). He’s Triad born and Triad bred, and he first experienced…Aw, shucks, let’s just let him tell it:

BBQ Jew: Where are you from and did you grow up on the divine swine?
Jim Noble: I am from High Point and grew up eating BBQ at least once a week or so with my Dad and family. My father was a furniture rep, traveling NC, and he was always on the lookout for great BBQ and local, homespun restaurants all over the state. In fact when we traveled together, he would take me to places he really enjoyed.

BBQJ: What’s your first barbecue memory?
JN: There were so many from an early age, I can’t recall my first, but Saturdays were the best Q days for us. Dad would normally get his mail together and go to the Post Office mid morning. Often I would go with him, then to the grocery store and end up at Kepley’s BBQ (The red pig on the sign signifies the first Q joint Kepley had, called The Red Pig.).

My dad’s favorite was Lexington and Gary’s in China Grove, but Kepley’s was only a mile or so from our home. Kepley’s was always good and I love those guys – we’ve been going in for 45+ years, but our favorite was Monk’s Q at Lexington #1 (in the west that is.) one of my favorite BBQ memories was going hunting with Bob Timberlake, Tom Ix and a crew from Lexington at the Wildcat Hunting club and eating the skins at Jimmy’s BBQ. They were absolutely awesome (overused but great word when used in its original meaning). He once approached me about buying Jimmy’s, but I wasn’t ready at the time.

BBQJ: As a gourmand and a chef, what do you appreciate most about barbecue?
JN: I appreciate the craft of cooking pork over live wood. All of our restaurants cook with wood and I wouldn’t think of cooking it any other way. If I had to cook without wood, I would go into the wine business or organic farming. The legend/lore/artisanal characteristics of cooking with wood is my most heartfelt passion. As one of my chefs and I say, “You can’t sous-vide that.”

Continue reading