From Boar's Head to barbecue
Why’s a former Boar’s Head chef so excited about smoked meat? It’s because barbecue has always been Jinx Kern’s true love, even after 30 years in the cuisine scene. Kern has studied the art of barbecue, and if degrees were offered, he’d probably have a Ph.D. He believed Charlottesville needed a spot for true pit-cooked barbecue, and now, his restaurant, the Pit Stop, provides just that as it caters to a cross-section of barbecue lovers, from UVA professors to Dale Earnhardt fans— and some folks who may be both.
On a recent rainy day down on Market Street, smoke wafts by while inside the cozy spot— all of two tables and a counter— the memorabilia owns the walls, from the familiar red of old Coca-Cola signs to the ubiquitous pink winged pigs, the mascot of Jinx’s Pit Stop Barbecue.
Q: Jinx, is this a barbecue town?
A: Charlottesville, up to now, has been renowned for B-B-Q (he utters the letters with polite disdain). “BBQ” reflects the abbreviated process the product springs from. The real thing takes a good deal of patience and art. For whatever reasons, mostly economic, I think, people shy away from the long and fairly arduous process of making real barbecue.
Q: When did you start today?
A: 5:30am. I get a fire going as soon as possible, and the meat goes in.
Q: How much meat?
A: An amount suited to my cooker.
Q: You won’t tell?
A: And you’re going to say, “How long do you cook it?” And I will say, “Until it’s done.” That’s a long, long time. I got no girlfriend to go home to at the moment, so I barbecue.
Q: What makes this pit-cooked barbecue? Do you have a pit?
A: I have a different kind of a pit. I made it. This is a piece of equipment I bought at auction from ConAgra. I like the fact that it still says “Spice Room” on it. How much spice was used in frozen food? I don’t think a whole lot. This locker is lined with bricks, so it is a pit, but it stands upright.
Q: Why is a pit the best method?
A: You ask 10 people barbecue is, and you will get 10 answers. They reply based on what they were raised with and what is available in their area. I know in my heart that I could boil fish and make a nice chowder and hang out a sign that says BBQ. A certain number of people would say: “Is this BBQ? I like this.”
(He shows a letter)
Q: This is high praise: “You quite obviously are not just another BBQ wannabe intent upon slopping out ersatz Memphis barbecue and ‘getting rich.’” Who is Sugar Mike McQuade who said this?
A: He’s interested in perpetuating authentic regional cuisines. So his comments make me feel good. He’s internationally sanctioned to judge barbecue at the Memphis in May festival, which is sine qua non, and he’s certified KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society). He’s examined more than 1,000 cookers in the course of judging barbecue. He liked my cooker. It is a Cadillac.
Q: When did you start making barbecue your raison d’etre?
A: The most fortuitous thing was showing up at Starnes in Paducah, Kentucky, on the day before Thanksgiving. Their barbecue is simply the best. I wanted to work for them, but it is family-only. So on the day before the holiday, they had mistakenly left all the kids in charge of the shop. I walked in without guile, and said, “I’ve been eating this barbecue for 45 years. Couldn’t you show me where you do it?” Bless his heart, one of the kids showed me the pits out back, and it all fell smack into place. There is a trick to it, counterintuitive. What I figured out remains their secret and mine. And I wanted to bring this to Charlottesville.
Q: Are you from Charlottesville?
A: I came here in 1953. I’ve been here mostly since then.
Q: How old were you in 1953?
(Young man enters. “Make me another one you made me this morning.” Judy Baber, a diminutive and energetic woman behind the counter, who worked for the restaurant in its former incarnation, obliges.)
Q: (I bite into my sandwich, full of tender and unadulterated pork. A small amount of sauce has been spread on the bread. The pork itself looks naked but tastes hearty.) You use white bread?
A: Yes, lightly toasted on the grill. Because Starnes does it that way.
Q: Do you cook the pork with sauce?
A: Sauce is a condiment, not a cooking medium. I read in the Daily Progress, in the “Desperation Dinners”— appropriately named— that if you cook pork loin in your favorite sauce for 12 hours, you’ve got Carolina barbecue. What you’ve got is Carolina BBQ. The sauce is drying up the pork. That’s where slaw comes in.
A: When you dry out pork cellulose, the only way to get it down your throat is to chew it with slaw. On a bun [said with distinct disdain]. Cole slaw covers a multitude of sins. We make the best slaw, but we put it on the side. We still refer to it as the “s-word.”
Q: What is the essence of barbecue?
A: Sugar Mike says there is no definitive barbecue, just good and bad. I’ve had Western Carolina that I would put up, almost, against Starnes. But now there are places in Carolina that use gas burners and electric burners to make their product. That to me is a travesty and a blasphemy. So what is it? It is a concoction of pork that is cooked in such a way that you taste smoke. Smoke is the essence of barbecue.