Monday, May 17, 2010

Randal Cooper: The Exit Interview

Posted By on Mon, May 17, 2010 at 7:43 AM

Last week when Hungry Memphis profiled the author of the barbecue map Memphis Q, we figured it was only good manners to give a shout-out to the OBM. (That’s Original Barbecue Mapper … respect.) But then it was announced on the CA’s Whining and Dining blog that Randal Cooper, who started his online Barbecue Map in 2004, was leaving town to take a job with Nissan in Smyrna (near Nashville) and giving away the keys to the map.

So on to Plan B: an exit interview with Cooper, actor/blogger/Hottie/ teacher/foodie also known by his Internet handle Cwabs (pronounced the Elmer Fudd way), who could always be relied upon for a frank and funny word or two on Memphis foodways.

What was the impetus for putting together the Barbecue Map?
A couple of years ago Google came out with a way to make your own maps, and I thought that logging every barbecue place in Memphis would be a good way to verify the claim that Memphis had more than 100 barbecue restaurants (I've got 107 listed on the map, but can't verify that all of them are currently open).

It took about two hours to put the original map together, just listing every barbecue place in town and color-coding which ones I thought were worth a visit. Adding a quick review of each place took a little bit longer, of course, but by then I'd created a monster, since it appealed to the barbecue lover AND the map lover in me. Lots of other folks, too—I guess. At last count it's had more than 25,000 views, which is minor in terms of web phenomena, but still makes me feel pretty good, especially if folks are using it to find new places to try.

Was there a "Holy Grail" of barbecue places that you never got around to mapping?
I think I hit all the major places in town, but it was always a lot more fun finding the secret, well off-the-beaten-path restaurant—the guy with a smoker sitting in the parking lot who wasn't making food for a crowd, but was putting his own hard work into making something he genuinely cared about. It might be the placebo effect, but I think you can really taste the difference in food prepared by someone who takes pride in their work and wants to see your eyes light up when you eat it. Those places are hard to find (and sometimes don't last long), and I'm sure I missed a couple of them over the years.

In regards to your Barbecue Map replacement, are you interviewing? Any words of advice?
I'd love to have a score of applicants for the position and carefully vet them, but nobody's yet stepped up and volunteered to take over. That might be due to the fact that I haven't had time to write an announcement that I'm leaving and post it to the site, of course. I think I might go with a "crowdsourced" solution—I've got several friends who have a special fondness for barbecue, and adventure, and who could devote a little time to the project instead of one person who wants to devote significantly more time to it.

The best advice I can give is to pace yourself. No barbecue cartography project, no matter how delicious and intellectually stimulating, is worth a heart attack before you hit 40 or adult onset diabetes.

What will you miss most about Memphis, food-wise?
It'll be hard to find a barbecue sandwich quite like those in Memphis. Barbecue in other cities is kinda like Memphis barbecue's alien doppelganger: it may look the same sitting on the plate, but if you bite into it you discover that they've added maple syrup or honey to the sauce and you'll never never be able to scrub that awful surprise off of your taste buds no matter how much ultrasonic toothbrushing and astringent gargling you do.

Also, I'll miss a few selected desserts ... Visitors to Nashville without Muddy's cupcakes in tow should expect to be greeted with a long sigh instead of a warm embrace.

Anything you won't miss about Memphis, food-wise?
Memphis has a sort of food nostalgia that keeps people going back to some truly mediocre (to just plain awful) places because that's where folks went when they were kids, and it tastes like childhood. The yearning to return home via food has a certain romantic appeal, but without those memories to color the experience I'm often at a loss to understand exactly what the appeal of these places is. Then again, I guess we all have our guilty, salt-laden pleasures.

Those interested in taking over the Barbecue Map can leave a comment at the site.

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