Born to barbecue: Jonny O the BBQ Hobo is a chain smoker, building all his days around the joys of slow-cooking meat, at home or on the road.

October 27, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

If you spend weekends with Jonny O the BBQ Hobo, you learn things about barbecue.

You learn that if you want to eat a 97-pound pig for Sunday supper you start cooking it by Saturday noon. You learn that a good way to get hickory wood, one of the required fuels of authentic barbecue, is to have a friend in the excavating business. He'll keep you in hickory stumps if you cook a few pigs for him.

You learn that when you're eating authentic barbecued chicken, you do not get alarmed if the meat is red. It's a sign that the chicken has been smoked, not that it's under-cooked.

If you spend weekends with Jonny O the BBQ Hobo, known to the weekday world as Jon Olivarri, you get to watch a man pursue his passion. Most of us have a corner of our lives, our weekend obsession, that we turn to for occasional comfort. Surgeons build cabinets in their spare time. Professors play the piano. Typists grow tomatoes.

Jonny O the BBQ Hobo smokes meat.

For the Maryland resident, his escape has become a lifestyle. He travels to barbecue contests around the country, sometimes acting as an official, sometimes just hanging out. On his journeys, he totes a sleeping bag, often camping out "under the stars."

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Jonny O can be found standing under a soaring sycamore tree near his rented home in Brookeville, a rural patch of Howard County, helping pork shoulders make the slow, smoky transformation from raw meat into a moist mouthful of heaven, known as real barbecue.

To pay his bills, he works odd jobs -- installing kitchen counter tops in Frederick, driving a tow truck in Washington. To keep himself happy, he cooks meat over smoldering wood embers, sometimes for friends, sometimes for money, sometimes in competitions.

On a recent weekend, the mess of smoked pork shoulders and top rounds of beef he is cooking is destined to feed guests at a friend's wedding in Middletown. To make sure the crowd of 80 will have enough to eat, Jonny O cooks enough barbecue to feed 200.

To make sure he will look presentable for such an affair, he takes extra shirts. Once a shirt brushes against a cooker that has smoked a few hundred pork shoulders, he explains, it becomes a "barbecue shirt," one you don't wear to weddings.

Jonny O's idea of a vacation is to drive his '85 Olds 1,105 miles to Kansas City's Kemper Arena for the annual American Royal barbecue contest, which was held earlier this month. There, as some 377 barbecue teams from around the nation cook in a two-day competition -- the first day for the nation's top 48 teams, the second day for all comers -- Jonny O is in hog heaven.

Since he is an official of the Kansas City Barbeque Society -- a representative for Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and the District of Columbia -- he helps supervise some of the contest proceedings. But mostly he hangs out, visiting buddies from Florida and Texas, trying to coax Paul Kirk, a big bubba of the Kansas City barbecue scene, to visit Maryland, and swapping stories with Rich Davis, founder of the KC Masterpiece restaurants and barbecue sauces as well as a sponsor of the Royal contest.

As is his habit, Jonny O sleeps "under the stars" in Kansas City, stretched out in a sleeping bag in the parking lot. This time he adds an air mattress to his bedding and announces that his nocturnal life has been transformed.

"I used to lay on the ground, or under a table, using a bag of charcoal as a pillow," he says. "But now that I have that air mattress, not anymore. That was the best 12 dollars and 95 cents I ever spent."

Jonny O is a big fella, 5-feet 10-inches tall and weighing somewhere around 250 pounds. His midsection cannot quite be corralled by the waistband of his jeans. At 34, his hair is still dark brown and lanky, with curls falling over his shirt collar.

He always wears a hat. Usually, it is a baseball-style cap, adorned with pins that mark the various barbecue gatherings he has attended. One cap had so many metal pins -- 30 -- that it collapsed from the weight of the decorations.

He also wears a fedora, which is responsible for the "hobo" part of his nickname. A few years ago, during a visit to a Memphis in May barbecue festival, a little girl saw him stretched out in a park with the hat pulled over his face and announced to her mother that she had spotted a "hobo."

Jonny O liked the label, thought it captured his penchant for spur-of-the-moment travel and old-fashioned ways of doing things.

An old-fashioned guy

"He would have made a good pioneer," says his mother, Bobbie Olivarri, a paralegal at the FBI in Washington. "He loved the outdoors and the old ways."

He grew up in Silver Spring, the middle of three boys who attended St. Bernadette's elementary school and Good Counsel High School. When he turned 16, he bought a truck. Later, in a bout of youthful rebellion that served as his farewell to that institution, he drove the truck across the high school lawn.

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