Jinx Kern's draw is deeper than the barbecue

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Jinx Kern (Photo by Cramer Photo)

“There have been few culinary experiences in my life that have quieted, humbled, and thrilled me with [their] utter perfection, but Jinx’s pork did all of those things,” wrote New York food blogger, Chichi Wang, somewhat hyperbolically, after a trip to Jinx’s Pit’s-Top Barbecue in 2010. “Like true love, the experience of the sandwich left me quite certain that it would be a long time before I could feel anything tantamount to the pleasure I experienced on that summer afternoon.”

What kind of pork inspires a love letter? Or should Ms. Wang’s note have been addressed to Jinx himself, the Quixotic figure behind the high counter, 60 years old with a ’50s side part and a wolfish grin?

I set out to answer that question by trying to understand why Jinx has gotten so much attention since he opened his little barbecue shack on Market Street a decade ago. Southern Living, USA Today, Maxim, and The Wall Street Journal have all touted his business, comparing it to national barbecue institutions like Dreamland and Rendezvous. Locally Edible Blue Ridge, The Hook, and a whole passel of food bloggers have sung his praise. All this attention for a business that’s open for lunch only, has one employee, and serves 20 people on an good day.

“Barbecue is a timeless thing,” Jinx said. “If it’s been cooked right, you are eating something that’s been a human experience since cooking began. I know enough about the history of art that I can legitimately say that the first barbecue was the food of the gods.”

Jinx is a storyteller, and he was answering a reporter’s question I had posed to him in a roundabout way. What makes the place special? Jinx started the Pit’s-Top because he was at a crossroads in his life. At age 49 he was heartbroken and unemployed, driving home to Virginia from a failed relationship in California. When he got to Arkansas he turned left, to Paducah, Kentucky, and Starnes Barbecue, in search of the food he grew up with and some insight into the process of how it was made. After talking his way into the back, Jinx came away with five pounds of pulled pork infused with hickory smoke and the secret of his success.

“The thing about people who love barbecue is they’ve got an idea. There’s always the hope that when they go to that next place they’re gonna find it again and not have to drive all the goddamn way to Paducah.”

Or to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in my case, just across the railroad tracks from the town where my dad grew up. At Brooks Barbecue a pound of pulled pork comes with a half loaf of cheap white bread, bright yellow mustard-based cole slaw, and an orangey-red vinegar-based hot sauce. The meat is cooked out back and pulled by hand into long strands, crisp at the edges and glistening with fat. It’s heavenly.

But no one writes about Brooks, or Starnes, or any of the cinder block buildings with dirt parking lots and piles of hickory wood on the side that dot the South the way they write about Jinx.

Is it that he’s a double Hoo with a master’s degree in art history? Or that no one ever knows when his business is open? Or that his place seems to defy a half century of development in the health code? Or is it something more mysterious?

“If you verbalize all that, if you articulate it and put it out in the air…” Jinx paused and sighed. “There’s a kind of a magic there that we all conspire to and if we discuss it, suddenly it vanishes, because it becomes self-conscious.”

Back to Ms. Wang, who visited Jinx on a 90-degree summer day after having spent a week in North Carolina in search of the best barbecue she could find. This from a woman who spent a year at a butcher’s shop learning about meat and who is as comfortable in the eateries of Jackson Heights as in the brasseries of Paris.

“Each bite presented a different facet of Kern’s art: the way the meat seemed almost flaky, like confit, or the wetness of the flesh, which was impossibly juicy without being the least bit soggy.”

I declare, I believe I need a handkerchief.

Mr. Kern, I presume

J.W. “Jinx” Kern lives near Stuart’s Draft in a family home, Slatelands, originally constructed in 1789. (Photo by Cramer Photo)

J.W. “Jinx” Kern was born in Jackson, Mississippi, the son of an assistant chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad who hailed from Paducah, Kentucky. Jinx’s grandfather and namesake was the superintendent of the Kentucky division of the Illinois Central, and cast a shadow on following generations.

“He was a big deal. All the rest of us are kind of rag-tag after him,” Jinx said.

The Boss, as Jinx’s grandfather was known, died on December 6, 1941, and the Sunday paper’s front page top headline was “J.W. Kern dies,” with a smaller one below that read “Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.”

This is the type of anecdotal history that is familiar to Southern families of a certain class. It speaks to the need to preserve stature in a world controlled by Yankee carpetbaggers and also to a deeply ingrained classical education—the histories of heroes and gods.

But Jinx never was called The Boss. Instead, he took his nickname from his great-grandfather, The Boss’s father, a professor of Greek at Episcopal High School and Washington and Lee University, whose sense of things was so iconoclastic that his wife called him Hijinks, Jinx for short. Jinx says he got his name because we was born on the 13th day of September, but who ever really knows how these things work?

“I didn’t know that until I was about 35, and by then it was too late to do anything about it. And I didn’t want to anyway,” Jinx said.

Jinx’s mother’s family, Jefferson descendants through the Davises, connects him to Charlottesville. His grandparents, Peggy and Bernard Mayo, lived on the Lawn when Bernard taught history at UVA.

“It’s kind of a burden and it’s also a legacy, and my brother and I are the only ones who seem to worry about it,” Jinx said.

Jinx has a box that his uncle took to World War I, where he died. The box is filled with family letters that he plans to digitize, but there is unwritten information in his head that’s just as important, like the fact that his paternal grandmother’s recipe for dinner rolls “almost made it into The Joy of Cooking.”

Walking into the Pit’s-Top is like traveling back to the early ’50s—posters of pinup girls and aluminum cola advertisements layered on the clapboard walls while This is the Army flickers on an old television. Jinx banging around in the back, greeting people with and offhand charm that belies how closely he pays attention.

“Jinx’s basically looks like a small, not particularly well kept home. Inside was littered with old memorabilia, like the old school pepsi logo and VHS tapes(?). It was pretty messy. I’d guess its been weeks since the floor has seen a mop. I was greeted by Jinx, who was hustling back and forth grabbing firewood and a piece of newspaper set on fire. I knew that this was going to be in for an experience,” wrote one of the many food bloggers who’ve been drawn to the place like moths to a lamp.

Not everyone sees the charm, which may be why one of his close friends, Booton Lee “Boo” Barnett, calls it a “barbecue Brigadoon.”

“After hearing about this ‘hole in the wall,’ my family and I were ready for some great BBQ, but were thoroughly disappointed in both the food and the experience. Not only was there nowhere to sit, Jinx pushed aside some old VHS tapes and other assorted personal letters and clothing items that cluttered the countertop, but the place was altogether filthy,” wrote one commenter on TripAdvisor.com.

So how did Jinx get from the Lawn to the shack? It’s a long story. The short version is he finished a master’s in art history at UVA in the mid-’70s, got engaged, and was all set up to live the kind of life people expected him to live. He spent two years as a paid intern at the UVA Art Museum, moonlighting in food service and preparation at the Boar’s Head, Farmington, and The Gaslight, which is where he got his first real experience in the kitchen.

“You get it in your blood and it’s hard to get rid of,” Jinx said.

And then the train went off the tracks. It was 1975 and he’d gone with a friend to visit his future mother-in-law. It was March 13 (beware the Ides of March), Jinx’s half-birthday, and his fiancée was still in London finishing her degree. Jinx and his friend took the car and said they were going to see The Sound of Music. Instead, they headed in the opposite direction in search of an ‘X’-rated movie. As they sped alongside a railroad track in the southern edge of Cook County, Illinois, near Chicago but out in the country, their car was struck without warning by another car, a black Pontiac Trans Am, that had hit the railroad grade and launched into the air, landing on the roof just behind Jinx’s left ear.

His friend suffered a fractured skull and lost six months of memory. They found Jinx walking in circles in a field in shock. He woke up in the hospital, with his father holding his hand, thinking that he had cancer. His life had changed.

“A nanosecond earlier or later and I’m dead. I got back to the University and finished the year all right. I don’t know,” Jinx said, searching for the best way to explain what happened. “My own theory is that I have a scar on my frontal cortex which froze my emotional capacities at the age of 23, which is a fine place to be. But after that I decided if it’s not fun, I’m not going to do it.”

Master of the house

The Retired Old Men Eating Out (ROMEO) lunch group meets every Friday at noon at Jinx’s Pit’s-Top Barbecue near the corner of Market Street and Meade Avenue in Charlottesville. On Thursdays, a young men’s lunch group fills the place. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

“‘It was an odyssey and a saga,’ says Jinx with a sly smile that signals he’s about as comfortable discussing his personal journey as he is spilling his barbecue secrets. On this chilly morning, though, he does both,” wrote Steve Russell in an Edible Blue Ridge profile of Jinx.

But I’m not certain that Jinx hasn’t just learned the value of hiding out in the open. Every Thursday, a group of young men gathers at Jinx’s for a long barbecue lunch that was instigated by Chip Ransler and a group of friends. Ransler is from Paducah, understands the magic of Starnes, and recognized the authenticity of Jinx’s work, not just in the pork but also in an old sign for the Kingsway Skateway that hangs just inside the door at the Pit’s-Top. The young men are musicians, writers, academics, and entrepreneurs in their 30s, clean-cut and mostly clean living. Jinx sets out a steaming platter of barbecue chicken thighs, marinated in yogurt and ranch dressing because buttermilk wasn’t available.

“Where did that come from?” one says.

“From the egg of course,” quips Jinx, with a balletic whirl that ends in the satisfying sizzle of sweet potato fries dropped into hot grease.

“We’re all seekers here,” Ransler says.

“What is Jinx the answer to?” I ask.

“He is the riddle,” says Ian Ayers.

“He is an enigma,” Ransler continues. “This is like a testament to an authentic life. This is the most organic thing happening. We don’t eat like this anymore.”

That’s the Thursday crowd. On Fridays the Retired Old Men Eating Out come in and talk about stuff that happens to people a generation older. They love Jinx just as much, more probably.

The two groups came together for the first time earlier this year at Jinx’s family home in Stuart’s Draft for a dinner of cassoulet, which took Jinx a week to make and allowed him the lifelong fulfillment of confit-ing a duck. Slatelands, which was built in 1789 and came into the family in 1840, belonged to a great aunt before Jinx moved in. Her electric lift chair still graces the spiral bannister, but otherwise the house looks like it has changed little through the years, save for the artistic evidence of successive grand tours that litters the walls.
Chip Ransler: “There’s still new information coming out all the time. I didn’t know if his so-called estate was a trailer or an antebellum house.”

The men brought their wives and kids to the dinner. Three generations of Jinxers.

I went out to Stuart’s Draft a few week’s after the dinner, which they are still talking about. Jinx and I sat in the drawing room and I asked him what made him tick. It’s a strange thing to ask someone, but he was patient with me.

We went back through his biography, which for the past two decades has been about working various chef jobs at venues as exalted as the executive dining room at The Field Museum in Chicago and as humble as prep cook at the Doubletree. Jinx is a serial monagamist, forever falling in love with ideas, projects, people. If he could be anyone else right now, it would be Kim Boggs, the found object artist whose work is on display at The Bridge/PAI.

Dates and numbers are important to Jinx. His revelatory visit to Starnes happened the day before Thanksgiving. He was fired for the last time the day after Christmas. Thirteen is his lucky number. Nothing is random.

“It all led back to Charlottesville. To where we’re sitting. All of these little things along the way have led me seemingly inexorably to where I am, which worries me because you wonder what’s next,” Jinx said.

He knocks wood for the fifth or sixth time in the conversation. Jinx is sad that he’ll not marry and have children, but otherwise he sees his life as a kind of paradise.

“It’s a great life. I have to pinch myself. I answer to no one…,” Jinx said. “Except maybe the IRS.” He wakes up in the morning and drives into town and makes barbecue that is better than anyone else’s. He opens the shop and puts on a show and the people mostly love him.
“When you pick something to do and it’s the right thing, the doors begin to open for no reason and suddenly the stars align and one thing leads to another and bang, you’re doing it,” he said.

Boo Barnett is one of Jinx’s Minxes, a loose confederation of women who help him out when he’s oversubscribed a catering gig. A Charlottesville native, Boo describes Jinx as “the love child of Elmer Gantry and Atticus Finch” and encapsulates his charm with an elegant sentence.

“He’s this intellectual who’s out at the rock pile drinking port, singing at the top of his voice while standing on that electric chair going up the stairs, declaiming Cicero. And then he’s this sweaty, essential alchemist who grabs bloody hunks of meat and seduces them with smoke,” she said.

After Jinx closes the shop each day, he goes to visit his mother, Peggy, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. It was her approval that set Jinx free. He spent a year after he opened the Pit’s-Top trying to get his barbecue to taste like Starnes and it always fell short.
“One day I got fouled up and had to leave a situation here and it caused me to add a step to the barbecue and I came back the next day and tasted it and my eyes lit up and I said, ‘She’s got to taste this,’” he said.

Jinx raced over with a plate. His father was still alive then and had a sammich too, but Jinx’s eyes were on Peggy.

“My mother, if she can find a thing wrong —this is her job, this is what mothers do—they find things wrong with you and she said, ‘It’s better than Starnes.’ And I knew that already,” Jinx said. “Angels started singing.”

That was in 2001. Since then he’s run his business on a model that he describes as “by the skin of my teeth.” It involves selling pulled pork sandwiches and ribs and overseeing a modern-day salon that Boo says is “almost like a Lost Boys Club.”

“He kind of cleaves to that Faulknerian view of Virginians that says we’re so interested in ourselves, we don’t really have time to be too interested in you,” Boo said. “If you like us, come on in and partake. If you don’t, we couldn’t care less.”

Born in Jackson but bred in Charlottesville. A Faulknerian Virginian, Jinx doesn’t really want to get into Proust, but he has something important to tell me, and he has to be precise.

“What I try to do is keep something alive that I have way from the beginning of my time. It’s now 60 years almost. It’s a flavor that’s in my DNA, so it reminds me of the past,” he said. “When the wind is right in this establishment, and the cooker is going, and it’s got a hickory fire in it and the humidity outside is just right, I can close my eyes and get a whiff of that, and bang it’s Paducah 1960 and it’s a rush. All those things come back. Bad and good, but mostly good.”

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