Smoke Signals: Q&A with John Snedden
When he opened the doors to Rocklands Barbeque & Grilling Company 20 years ago, John Snedden was, unwittingly, at the forefront of a culinary movement that would sweep the nation. Competitions, books, and classes have since become big business. TV networks high-brow (PBS) and low (TLC) beam barbecue shows to would-be low-and-slow masters nationwide.
Rocklands itself has mirrored the mania, having gone from its one store in Glover Park to four stores around the Washington area.
On Dec. 1, the date Rocklands opened two decades ago, Snedden will celebrate the milestone by offering a chopped pork sandwich, side and a drink for the 1990 price of $6.27.
I recently talked to the boyish 52-year-old about the city’s barbecue scene and his life in ‘cue.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Outside of Philadelphia.
Q: Not exactly barbecue country. So, how did you get into barbecue?
A: I don’t know how it came about. We did a lot of grilling. I think it was traveling with my family. We would travel to southern Virginia and I got exposed to it there. I guess I tried to emulate it.
Q: Do you remember your first barbecue cooking experience?
A: My first big one was, I did a pig roast for a woman whose lawn I mowed. A couple of friends helped me. I was in around 10th grade. It was my first roll at it; I had done a few hams before that.
We dug a pit in their backyard. We put down a metal spring that a mattress would sit on and got a pig down at the Italian Market.
From there, when I went to college, Washington and Lee, the school did four grain-alcohol/pig roasts a year, and I was on the pig roast committee. I started doing some catering. We lived at a farm called Rocklands, 200-some acres, 4-bedroom, 150-year-old red-brick house, and hosted some parties out there. And people would ask me to bring that Rocklands sauce.
Q: I’ve read that you don’t practice any particular style.
A: People ask what kind of style we’re trying to be. I say, "We’re just trying to put out great, traditional barbecue."
Q: Tell me about your pits. Are they gas-fired?
A: Our pit designs, I try to emulate cooking on a Weber grill. They’re fully wood fueled.
Q: What type of wood do you use?
A: Red oak and hickory. Split logs about the size of your calf and thigh. We cut it if we want it smaller. We use a full cord every 10 days in each store.
Q: Knowing how to cook with a wood fire over a long period of time, that can be tough. How did you learn?
A: A lot of trial and error. Probably our customers would validate that we have had a few errors. [Laughs]
Q: Tell me about the time you helped with the White House menu under Clinton.
A: We were one of the contributors with Larry Forgione. We offered a grilled shrimp in a minced garlic, honey, and Dijon mustard marinade, flash grilled, then served with horseradish-mango chutney. It was their first state dinner.
We catered events for Bill Clinton. People say he has this charisma. When you meet him, you get it.
Q: Have you been contacted by the Obama folks?
A: We haven’t been contacted by the current White House. We were one of the caterers during the inaugural.
Q: You have an Obama Hot Sauce…
A: That’s been a very popular sauce. Harris Teeter carried it until just very recently. The general populace has a strong connection to President Obama. But it’s not selling as well, now. The novelty has worn off. We’re going to discontinue it.
Q: So, what changes have you seen over the years in barbecue?
A: The biggest change is that there are more of them [barbecue restaurants]. There are some newfangled ways of cooking. There’s a lot more interest in barbecue in general. Pork Barrel will be opening. Hill Country. I think we’re going to see more of them come into our market.
Q: What’s next for Rocklands? Any new stores? Any new sauces?
A: I would like to keep expanding. I love interacting with people who love the experience. That’s what I love about the business. And that’s what I would like to bring to more people. I’m thinking of partnerships with employees for expansion.
Q: Any specific plans for another store?
A: No, not just yet.
-- Jim Shahin