Photography by Robert Merhaut
TALES FROM THE PIT
Gary Cox of GK’S BBQ
BY CORBO ENG
“Ive been doing this for 38 years,” says Gary Cox, taking some of this spice, some of that and some of still many others and dumping them into a rectangular bin. The resulting dry rub mixes colors of cayenne red and lighter tones of garlic powder and ground mustard.
After the rub has set into the pork shoulder, Cox nestles the slab, resting in individual aluminum pans, onto racks in his smoker. He drenches the bottom of each pan with apple juice—a common enough maneuver but one Cox says keeps the meat moist and adds flavor. Then he dumps in kiln-dried wood charcoal in the attached firebox. Hickory, together with cherry or apple wood, creates the smoke.
“When you mix hickory and fruit wood together,” Cox says, “it makes romance to the meat.” He laughs. “It makes the meat happy. It gives it flavor. And it’s the right kind of smoke.”
It’s a smoke that’s served Cox, owner of mobile barbecue vending business GK’s BBQ, well. He also credits his premium smoker, The Good-One, as a big reason for his success. “Back in the day, when I started doing this, we didn’t have the cookers like I have today,” he says.
Cox used to barbecue with an oil drum.
“We’d take a 55-gallon drum, cut a hole in the bottom, set it up on cinder blocks, poke some holes in it and put some wrought iron through it,” he explains, gesturing the work of putting the contraption together.
The wood would go in next and, Cox says, “We’d take the coals that formed in there and put it in another oil drum.” This other oil drum rested horizontally, cut open as a makeshift smoker.
These setups happened back when Cox worked as a farrier. Cox shoed horses for almost four decades on the rodeo circuit where he also entered in team roping and riding cutting horses. The rodeo lifestyle took him around the South and West, including stops where barbecue matters—Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming. After shows, there would always be a barbecue feast centered on those oil drums. These cookouts occurred with the same regularity, seemingly, as mosquitoes out on a hot summer night.
Cox’s band of cohorts—fellow rodeo farriers, judges, cowboys and clowns—hailed from varying parts of the country and were all barbecue aficionados. “We’d talk, of course. And we’d always exchange ideas,” says Cox, who along the way developed dry rubs, sauces and cooking methods that weren’t of any one persuasion.
He drew from his friends’ styles and techniques, a hodgepodge of the great barbecue hotbeds of North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas. “I’d go around to every one of these guys and start a conversation. ‘What do you do, and how [are] you doing it?’”
Cox eventually weaned his way off of the rodeo circuit and began working as a certified farrier based in Lovettsville. Last March, he severely injured a disc in his back and suffered nerve damage in his right leg as he was hunched over shoeing a horse with the horse’s hoof in between his legs. “It stomped on me in the head, chest, belly and gut,” he says. “I was out for a long time.” He saw his career as a farrier ended because of that accident.
Tapping into his wealth of barbecue knowledge, Cox started GK’s BBQ with his wife, Karen. He bought a 30-foot barbecue trailer he pulls with his pickup truck.
On Thursdays Cox’s trailer is parked parallel to Route 287 at Ridgeway’s Used Cars in Lovettsville. Under the ample sunshine, there’s a feeling of being at home. Cox knows many of his customers’ names as they come out for a quick lunch. Many order a pulled pork sandwich—smoky pork encased in a soft bun punctuated by Cox’s homemade sauces.
There’s also chicken, ribs and brisket. During his days as a farrier, he also entered barbecue competitions. It was at the Southern Jamboree in Wytheville, Virginia, in 1988 when Cox won first place for his brisket, moist, marbled and smoked overnight. He still serves it.
Get it: GK’s BBQ
Menu highlights: brisket, pulled pork, ribs and chicken wings
Often found at Ridgeway’s Used Cars, 11879 Berlin Turnpike, Lovettsville; Carlyle & Anderson, 17000 Berlin Turnpike, Purcellville; Corcoran Brewing Company, 205 E. Hirst Road, Purcellville; Dry Mill Vineyards & Winery, 18195 Dry Mill Road, Leesburg; Shell Station, 40636 Charles Town Pike, Paeonian Springs