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 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.

The Gospel According to Keith

As we’ve said before, we are big fans of Allen & Son Barbeque in Chapel Hill.  Here are some beautiful words from the man himself, Keith Allen, to help you BBQ Jews out there get through the work week:

Interviewer: “Can you describe what that taste is that you’re looking for?”

Keith Allen: “Well when—after I chop the barbecue by hand and I put that sauce on it and I put that bite of meat in my mouth and my taste buds start watering and they come alive and that tang reaches out and almost brings tears to your eyes, you know, that you’ve gotten what you’re after. Because if you don’t do all—if it doesn’t do all those things to you, you’ve missed it by a bit. And if—if you come in here and taste that barbecue right off the table, and you put it in your mouth and your taste buds doesn’t just wake up and—and you’re not tasting everything—all aspects about it, not just the sauce but the meat and all—it’s not covered up with really hot—if you’re no tasting all aspects of it, then I’ve missed the boat.” 

Read the rest of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s interview with Keith Allen, and listen to audio excerpts, here.  Click on the Documentary link on the Southern Foodways Alliance website for more great oral histories related to southern food and culture.