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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

He finished high school at Northwood High School, then in 1983 enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park in a two-year program in the school of agriculture, joining Alpha Gamma Rho, a fraternity for students interested in agriculture.

He liked his time in college, where he was introduced to barbecue. "This was Ag school. There was always a farm you could go to to roast a pig," he recalls.

He also learned how to sleep in public places. "We were always showing cattle, sleeping in show barns," he says. The skill still comes in handy when he's trying to catch a few winks on the grounds of a barbecue contest.

"I had a good time in college. I spent three years on the two-year plan. Somebody asked me if I was interested in the four-year program, and I said, 'No way. I don't want to be in school for six years.' "

He had hopes of becoming a cattle rancher, raising herds of Angus, or perhaps operating a feed lot. "But unless you had a huge amount of property, or a feed-lot operation, you couldn't be a cattleman," he says.

After college, he continued to barbecue, fashioning a series of cookers out of metal 250- and 500-gallon fuel tanks, which were factory seconds. The containers, which never held a drop of fuel and were very cheap, were a find.

"Jonny can do almost anything," his mother says of her son's manual dexterity.

He's also a shrewd bargain hunter. "If there is a deal out there, Jonny will find it," she says.

Jonny O got a deal on a place to live, a 92-year-old farmhouse off Route 97 in Howard County. The house had been stripped of its plumbing by a previous tenant. Jonny O and a buddy from high school fixed the plumbing and moved in.

The property had everything Jonny O wanted, including plenty of room to pile tree stumps. It had a barn, where he could park his old cookers and work on new ones. It had woods filled with bounding deer and, soon, deer stands.

It had cheap rent. And it was an old-timey place for an admittedly old-fashioned guy.

But shortly before making his road trip to Kansas City, Jonny O learned he was going to lose his rented home of the past nine years. The farmhouse and surrounding woods had been sold to a developer. Suburban sprawl was forcing Jonny O the BBQ Hobo to move along.

But once he drove to Kansas City, Jonny O put his housing worries behind him and reveled in the breezy fellowship of the nation's largest barbecue contest. The Royal, held every October in an arena on river bottom land that once served as the Kansas City Stockyards, is a combination of serious competitions for the top teams and a hooting-good party for amateurs.

The lessons of barbecue

The top teams are there because they won either state titles or major barbecue contests held in the thick of barbecue country -- Texas, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Washington and Oregon. This year's winner in the top competition was the USA Smoke team from Hico, Texas. The open, or amateur, winner was the Three Little Pigs team from Blue Springs, Mo.

The teams pile up points by cooking in five categories: chicken, ribs, pork, brisket and sausage.

The night before the competition began, Jonny walked the grounds, greeting old friends and examining various cooking rigs. He took a few snapshots for his scrapbook, which includes photos of cookers that resemble an airplane, a fire engine and a commode. The 88-page album also has snapshots of the highlights of Jonny's competitive career: fourth place in chicken and fifth in brisket at a 1998 Frisco, Colo., contest.

Jonny O was not cooking in Kansas City, but, in his tours of the professional pits, he picked up nuggets of barbecue wisdom:

Your fire has to be made of wood. Hickory wood say the Southerners and some Midwesterners. Mesquite say the Texans. A mix of mesquite and pecan say the Oklahomans.

Your meat should be moist, so halfway through the cooking process, you wrap it in foil. But you have to be careful, too much foil makes your meat mushy.

Your chicken should be tender. If it is done, but tough, you probably cooked it too long.

Your ribs should be skinned, dusted with a dry rub and cooked four slabs at a time at 220 degrees for three to four hours, with the bones pointing up. In this bones-pointing-up position, the ribs cook in their own juices. For the last hour, turn them bone side down and let the exterior get crisp.

Jonny O agrees with some, but not all of the precepts.

He does not, for example, cotton to the notion of keeping precise measures of cooking temperatures. Instead of using a thermometer, he checks the heat by holding his hand on the exterior of the cooker. Warm to almost hot is the feel you want, he says.

While in Kansas City, he looked longingly at a gleaming, factory-built rotisserie unit on display at the barbecue gathering. The appeal of the cooker was its insulated exterior. He knows that in cold weather his uninsulated cookers give off a lot of heat.

He remembers a cold night at a barbecue cook-off in Harrington, Del., where he used the radiated heat of the cooker to keep warm. He slept on top of his cooker. And during the blizzard of 1996, when he fixed a rib feast for his snowbound Howard County neighbors, he had to wrap blankets around the cookers to keep them warm enough to finish off the ribs.

Plenty of judges

On his last Saturday in Kansas City, Jonny O shows up at the judging session of the open segment of the competition. Not only are almost 400 teams entered, but there are almost 400 judges rating the barbecue.

Row after row of tables stretch out in the vast hall, with six jurists sitting at each table. Bobbing in the middle of this sea of barbecue jurists is Jonny O.

He is one of a handful of officials from the Kansas City Barbeque Society who answer procedural questions. For example, a table of judges wants to know what to do when one team sends in five ribs, instead of six, for the six judges.

After consulting with fellow barbecue official Lee Henry, Jonny O tells the table how to proceed. Five judges should eat the ribs and rate them for flavor. The judge who didn't get a sample should record the lowest possible score for taste, a "1." Every judge should give the team a "1" in appearance. If a rib cook can't count to six, his team doesn't stand a chance of winning.

The next weekend, Jonny O is back home. A couple of his buddies drop by, including a giant of a man everybody calls "Bear." Nearby, traffic whizzes by on Route 97 and people are enjoying their days off. Men play golf. Dads patrol the edges of a kid's soccer game.

But at Jonny's place, the woods are thick, cutting off street noises and offering an autumnal picture of a man at peace with his fire.

The simple pleasure of smoking meat strikes a chord in every barbecuer, KC Masterpiece mogul Davis says. As a young man, Davis, who worked as a child psychiatrist before setting up his sauce and restaurant businesses, recalls spending almost every weekend with a barbecue buddy, a banker named Don Cartmill.

"We were in each other's backyards, trying to get things right," Davis says. "It was just fun. There was no tension. Once I got into it for a living, it became more serious."

More business-like?

Jonny O is trying to figure out if he wants to make that jump, if what he does for fun should become something he does for money. He ponders the future, presiding over a rack of smoking pork shoulders.

"Restaurant work would be too confining," he says. "Catering full-time would be fine, if I could travel. I travel a lot in my barbecue work. That appeals to me."

His ideal job, he muses, would be to become a corporate hobo. He could run a barbecue rig for a corporation, traveling to events around the nation. He could see himself, he says, as "Jonny O the Corporate BBQ Hobo."

But for the time being, Jonny O says, life isn't so bad. Somewhere out there is another farmhouse he will be able to rent. And there will always be opportunities to hit the open road.

One weekend, he will drive to Nelsonville, Ohio, to preside over a barbecue event, staying in a motel. On another weekend, he might drive to Tennessee to visit the Jack Daniels Barbecue Contest, to see friends, eat well and sleep under the stars.

"I am somewhat living a dream," he says. "I go to a lot of places. Granted, I sometimes take the cheap route, but I still get there."

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