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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 06/19/2012

Obama’s visit to Kenny’s BBQ: What does it mean?


Why did President Obama visit Kenny's Smokehouse? Maybe it was simply for a plate of the joint's ribs. (Mary Lou Foy for The Washington Post)
You know what the president of the United States and a super hero have in common? Neither can afford to reveal their true identities.

Spider-Man hides behind a mask. The president is concealed behind political calculation.

Think about food. Sometimes, lunch is just lunch. But for the most powerful person on Earth, every outing is scrutinized. It becomes a Rorschach test for people with nothing better to do, like me.

President Obama ate at a tiny barbecue joint in northeast Washington last Wednesday. Try as I might, I cannot puzzle out a political rationale for his choice.

Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse is in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but not of it. It’s a joint. Fluorescent lighting. A scattering of wood-veneer tables that provide seating for maybe 20 people. A pile of Styrofoam take-out boxes atop the glassed-in food case. Counter service.

Even owner Kwang Jeon is under no illusions. “This is a very small, very greasy place,” the trim, white-haired 72-year-old owner told me while recounting the president’s visit. “Between the White House and here, there are many nice restaurants. He came here. Today is the happiest day of my life.”

So why here as the place to sit with two active-duty members of the military and two barbers and talk about his “Fatherhood Buzz” initiative, which supports barber shops in providing resources to dads to help build families?

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why such an announcement would be made in a) a barbecue place generally and b) Kenny’s specifically.

I considered that, maybe, the restaurant itself was the reason. Something about demonstrating how small businesses can still get started despite the weak economy, similar to the show POTUS gave at the sandwich shop, Taylor Gourmet. But whereas Taylor was started in 2008 by a couple of young guys and expanded to several outlets, Kenny’s has been around for more than a decade.

I mulled that maybe it had something to do with the part of town. This section of Capitol Hill isn’t toney, but it isn’t decrepit either. It is a leafy neighborhood of townhouses and rowhouses that has seen values rise on a wave of gentrification. If there is something in this setting that functions as a political backdrop, I’ll need Dan Balz to explain it to me.

I thought that perhaps immigration was behind the choice. Jeon moved from South Korea to Washington in 1974, owned a little grocery store, then in 1997 bought Kenny’s, which had once been the original Hogs on the Hill. But just how badly does Obama need the Korean vote?

Maybe it was simply the food. Michelle Obama ate at Kenny’s about three years ago, Jeon says. Perhaps she kept telling hubby about the place.

There were, perhaps, 10 people eating at Kenny’s when Obama walked in. He shook hands, chatted briefly with patrons and ordered at the counter. Nicky James, 40, the cashier, served him a plate of pork ribs, collard greens, rice and beans (note: red beans, not rice and black-eyed peas, as reported elsewhere), cornbread and bottled water. James said Obama asked for additional spicy barbecue sauce and a container of hot sauce.

“I was nervous,” Nicky allows. “Surprised. Shocked. I didn’t know how to act when I saw him.”

Although Obama is well known for his around-town eating, this is just his second trip to a local barbecue restaurant, the other being Texas Ribs and BBQ in Clinton, Md. He also has eaten twice at 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville, N.C., during the 2008 campaign and at the start of his vacation in 2010. Every time, he has ordered pork ribs.

That, I think, clearly means something: The guy likes ribs. In sauce. Spicy hot sauce.

Hmmm. . .wonder what that means?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 06/19/2012

Categories:  Smoke Signals | Tags:  Jim Shahin

 
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