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Blowing Smoke

The rib-tickling history of Hoss Orwat.

Like all purveyors of great barbecue, Hoss Orwat is a renaissance man, a fine storyteller and a little bit goofy in the head. I've never known a good pit man who didn't come to barbecue sideways — who didn't sneak up on it or stumble into it or (in the case of the generational genius) flee from it before coming back like a chastened lover caught hound-dogging. I've known smokers who were once bankers or computer programmers or rich layabouts. I've known guys who've done barbecue illegally because, when given a choice between ribs and John Law, the ribs are gonna win every time. And I've known classically trained chefs who've thrown it all away on a couple of box smokers and the tinny smell of pork blood — because even amid cooks, the great pit men are a class apart, outlaws among outlaws.

And Hoss is one of them. We talked twice last week, and we talked for a long time — the conversation looping and referential, full of backtracks and weird asides. Hoss is full of strange enthusiasms and digressions and bluster, and when he talks about food he's talking about history and culture, too. He can make those links between grub and jazz, between pork shoulder and economics. And he's acquainted with James Carville, the Democratic strategist turned political analyst who knows a thing or two about good eats.

Like me, Hoss was born and raised in Upstate New York. When I left, it was to learn about Mexican and Cuban food and to get the hell away from the snow. When Hoss left, it was to get a master's degree in history focusing on Southern culture and politics. "I was good, you know?" he said. "Me and one of my professors would sit around eating hush puppies and talking about Faulkner." Hush puppies and drinks, sometimes. Sometimes drinks and a little bit of barbecue. When Hoss was working on his thesis, he'd pull into some town to research what had happened there politically — and inevitably, he'd end up eating barbecue with the mayor and getting saucy fingerprints all over his books. It was the best kind of education, because in great joints across the country, politics and food have always been interlinked — one humping the leg of the other. If you want to be in politics up north, you're going to spend a lot of time pressing the flesh and getting yelled at in diners. You want to do the same thing down south, you'd better love you some barbecue.

Once Hoss finished his degree, he took his sheepskin on the road with the Democratic National Committee. "I was just a hack," he said, selling himself a little short. What he was was a serious hack — a speechwriter for local, state and national races and one of the foot soldiers in the Clinton/Gore campaign. Which is how we got to talking about Carville and his 1996 book We're Right, They're Wrong, which, in addition to being an excellent read and a good source of (somewhat dated) material with which to taunt and pummel Republicans, also contains a wicked recipe for backyard-picnic potato salad and musings about politicians and food.

"One of my wife's friends was going to have a huge barbecue for the Fourth of July," Carville writes. "Sure, it was going to be a chest-thumping, live-free-or-die kind of Republican affair, but I have to admit it sounded great...[because] based on prior experience, I knew the food was going to be first rate. I will admit it: Republican gatherings always have better food than Democratic ones. Only good thing about a Republican party is the food."

After a few years of speechwriting and spinning, Hoss was fed up with politics. "I didn't have the stomach for it," he said, so he did the next logical thing: He wrote a novel. And then he did what many would-be writers end up doing: He tended bar. By now he was living in Colorado, working at the Sports Page in Louisville, where he did barbecue two nights a week. Then he drifted to New Castle, where he lived in a camper-top next to a bowling alley and cooked more barbecue. "It's like Charlie Parker said," Hoss explained. "You have all these things, all this life, all these troubles, and it all comes out of your horn. Well, it's the same thing with everything, whatever you're passionate about."

Actually, what Parker said was, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn," but I understood what Hoss was getting at. He'd done a lot, seen a lot, experienced a lot. And now, what was coming out of his horn was barbecue — America's greatest cuisine and best expression of her collective soul.

Hoss's various travels have influenced his barbecue — he talked about the Lexington pit in his kitchen, the delicious heresy of closed-pit-smoking his Texas brisket, how economics and the historic movement of Carolina pig farmers created my favorite barbecue style, Carolina tidewater, practiced in maybe a dozen towns sitting right on the sand — but ultimately, his barbecue is his own. He opened a restaurant in Boulder and closed it. Opened another in Snowmass, then sold it. Finally, on December 11, 2006, he opened Big Hoss Bar-B-Q on Tennyson Street thinking that this was it: the culmination.

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