Some people just don’t get it. They don’t appreciate the art and magic of manipulating fire and smoke to coax the tenderness from a hunk of meat; they don’t understand the impact of hot spots in the pit, or the myriad subtle stylistic decisions that must be made along the way—green or aged wood, direct or indirect heat, seasoning or no seasoning. These people have a hard time recognizing beauty in bones, and they don’t bother to assess the clouds on the horizon. Barbecue seems primitive stuff, simple on the surface—and thus some people, many people, miss its depth. In haste, they throw a steak on the grill and think they’re doing it. But cooking tender foods quickly over high heat is grilling, not barbecuing—and is, if not a different ball game altogether, certainly Little League.
As if it’s not bad enough that some people don’t understand barbecue, there are actually some who balk at the thought of eating it. According to NPD, a market research firm in Rosemont, Illinois, that tracks such things, a miniscule percentage of all American eating places can be defined as pure barbecue restaurants. And for the people who see the act of sucking the sweet meat out of a gristly rib tip as uncivil and animalistic, that rather small number of barbecue joints is more than enough. Rather than accept the sensuality of grease oozing down the chin and the inevitability of dark bits of bark (as the crust is called by those who know) getting trapped under the fingernails, these people pass on the experience entirely—or ruin the primal pleasure of it all by using utensils. One must not be quick to judge messy food, it was once said. Or if it wasn’t, it should have been. “Sometimes you need fourteen thousand napkins to wipe the sauce off your lips,” notes Guy Simpson, an insurance agent better known, at least in Kansas City barbecue circles, as the Rib Doctor. Some people, though, don’t like sauce on their lips.
Thankfully, some people do.
There are pockets of barbecue practitioners and evangelists all over the country, and theirs is a passionate culture, a vibrant culture, riddled with rituals, formulas, and contradictions. They can be found embroiled in the vinegar-mustard-and-tomato-sauce controversy in the Carolinas, enjoying pulled (not chopped) pork shoulder sandwiches in Memphis, celebrating smoky mutton in the hills of western Kentucky, and, in Texas, wrangling about how long to keep turning a brisket over smoldering mesquite. But nowhere is this culture more alive than in Kansas City—the epicenter of American barbecue.
To get one thing straight right away, there is no single Kansas City style of barbecue. (For that matter, there’s no single Kansas City; most of the city is in Missouri, but some is in Kansas, and barbecue belongs to both.) Instead, due in part to its central location and in part to the Kansas Citian’s open barbecue attitude (locals may be highly educated on the subject, but they are not, and they have never been, barbecue snobs), the city’s frenzy supports a democracy of styles. Natives were weaned on briskets and burnt ends—those crunchy bits cut from the richly marbled tip of the brisket—and a whole realm of pork ribs: standard spares, St. Louis-style slabs, meaty baby backs, and “poor man’s ribs” (rib tips). Crucial, too, in K.C. are hearty beef ribs and dainty Denver lamb ribs; sliced, chopped, and pulled pork (often piled on a soft bun and topped with coleslaw, a trick imported from either South Carolina or Memphis, depending on who’s talking); and Italian sausage, Polish sausage, and “hot links” that fall somewhere in between. There’s also chicken, fish, pig snouts (for barbecue fundamentalists), and whole heads of garlic (for left-wingers). Technically, there is a definitive Kansas City-style sauce: tangy, tomatoey, and thickened with molasses, but even this is open to interpretation. Today, K.C. groceries offer a staggering choice of boutique concoctions.
Kansas Citians, obviously, relish all their barbecue options. Local chef Paul Kirk, a.k.a. the Baron of Barbecue—who not only barbecues for fun but wins awards doing it; writes about all the ways to do it (Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces, from the Harvard Common Press); and offers classes on how to do it—believes that all this stylistic diversity is natural: “That’s what makes the world go round,” he says. Consequently, Kansas City locals were not too rankled last year when the Coalition for Excess Weight Risk Education deemed it the fourth fattest city in the country (after New Orleans; Norfolk, Virginia; and San Antonio, Texas). Kansas Citians simply know a good thing when they taste it.
There are, locals claim, as many as a hundred places scattered across metropolitan Kansas City to taste barbecue. Restaurants range from the spit-and-polish K.C. Masterpiece, a chain that sprang from a sauce (the sauce debuted in 1977; the first restaurant opened ten years later), to The Charcoal Grill, a one-room shack that serves its barbecue on flimsy paper plates. Rich Davis, the doctor-turned-restaurateur who calls the shots at Masterpiece, and Craig Mooney, founder of the Grill, have (not surprisingly) different barbecue philosophies: Davis, who sold his sauce brand to Kingsford in 1986, focuses on keeping his restaurants competitive, whether it’s by adding another flavor of fresh-squeezed lemonade (there’s already plain, peach, and raspberry) or a new location. Mooney, in contrast, is just trying to hold it all together. Davis serves amazingly tender dinosaur-size beef ribs and baby backs with a mustardy brown-sugar crust—and he hands out Wet-Naps. “Who says you can’t do authentic barbecue in a nice setting?” he asks. “We cut down the same damn hickory as everybody else.” Mooney, on the other hand, never uses seasonings or rubs on his meats. “We just put a good smoke on it,” he says. Dramatic differences like this are not really important, though. What matters is that both men (like a whole slew of other people in K.C.) have a philosophy at all. That, and their ability to do something with it.
“I only do ribs on Wednesdays,” says Ed McLain. “I don’t want the other meats soakin’ up the smoke.” McLain, with a sauce-speckled apron stretched across his belly, a towel in one hand, and a lethal-looking set of tongs in the other, stands before his big orange-tiled pit in the back room of Earl Quick’s Bar-B-Q at about 9 a.m. “This morning I’ll cook 35 boxes of ribs, about thirty pounds in a box,” he estimates. “We’ve already got 200, maybe 300 pounds ready.” It almost goes without saying that Kansas Citians, after years of fine-tuning their barbecue palates, have a knack for sniffing out fine, falling-off-the-bone-tender ribs. Cheap ones often smell the best, so on Wednesdays (when Quick’s discounts the price on a full slab), McLain gets to work an hour early, at 5 a.m., and by 6 a.m., he’s got his first 108 slabs steadily revolving in the pit, suspended in a cloud of hickory smoke. “Hook too low, and they’ll lean,” he observes. “See, he’ll lay on his neighbor slab, and you’ll get white spots. But hook too high, and the meat will tear. I’m probably gonna lose this one.” He points out a precariously positioned slab with his tongs. “If I’m lucky, he’ll land on the shelf; if not, I’ll hafta go in with the flashlight and the pitchfork.”
McLain has been working at Quick’s since the early 1980s. His dad, Earl, opened the place in 1964. Quick’s is one of a half-dozen offshoots of the oldest continuously running barbecue restaurant in K.C.: Rosedale, which Anthony Rieke opened in 1934 with his brother-in-law Anthony Sieleman. The two taught themselves to cook, attracted a loyal, multiracial clientele (back when that was rare), and eventually lured Earl, Ed, and an army of other talented locals into the business. “When it starts to sound like bacon,” says McLain, referring to the hiss coming from sizzling slabs in the pit, “you’d better check your fire. Earl, though, he used to sit out at the bar, and he could tell if the fire was too hot because he could smell the smell.”
Looking back on Kansas City’s evolution as a barbecue mecca, one can almost smell the smell as well. Barbecue as we know it most likely originated in South America, where Spanish explorers found Indians roasting game and fish over smoldering embers in a green twig contraption—which the Spainish called a barbacoa. The concept drifted north just after the turn of the century and sort of stuck in Kansas City, back when the railroad was still bustling, when the city had the country’s second largest stockyards, its four largest meat-packing plants, a firmly established African-American community, and Henry “Old Man” Perry—the father of Kansas City barbecue. As early as 1916, Perry was advertising his barbecued turkey, duck, pig, and goose, and by 1929, he had a brisk business going at three separate barbecue stands. Writer Calvin Trillin, a K.C. native, once went so far as to suggest that the city honor Old Man Perry with a statue. Maybe Trillin was kidding. But probably not. Perry’s brightest protege was one Charlie Bryant. Charlie, who was born in Texas, brought his brother Arthur to town and got him started in the business, and the two took over Perry’s place in the early ’30s. This became Charlie Bryant’s, and, when Charlie died in 1952, Arthur Bryant’s—and everyone knows that Calvin Trillin thinks Bryant’s is “the single best restaurant in the world.”
“Can I have extra bread with that?” a well-dressed man politely requests at the Bryant’s counter. (Sopping up barbecue may well be the only legitimate use for spongy, store-bought white bread.) Clearly this man has never been here before. “I’m givin’ you five slices,” the counterman retorts. Not much has changed at Bryant’s, but since Arthur died in 1982, the control of what is the most beloved barbecue restaurant in town—if not the country—and its adored, if often disparaged, sauce (grainy, orange, and paprika-heavy) has been dragged through numerous law offices and courtrooms in a dispute, now resolved, between Arthur’s niece Doretha and restaurateur Bill Rauschelbach, owner of K.C.’s iconic Golden Ox. (Doretha retains ownership; Rauschelbach leases Bryant’s from her.) Regulars claim Dorethea kept the place cleaner than Uncle Arthur did. They also say she tinkered with the sauce. Many barbecue aficionados now drive out to L.C.’s Bar B-Q—reportedly “the next Bryant’s”—on the eastern edge of the city instead. But the faithful keep going back to Bryant’s; maybe because they remember Arthur, who lived in an apartment next to the restaurant and reputedly slept on a cot beside the pit. Some of them probably even knew Charlie—and head pitman Woodrow Bacon, a fixture at Bryant’s for over 40 years.
Even as the times change, the Bryant’s sandwich will endure: a 12-ounce mound (of meat) heaped atop one piece of Butternut bread, a paintbrush-swipe of sauce, and four slices of bread teetering on top. The counterman gives it a quick squish to keep it all together, which usually results in a handprint, then he tosses a bunch of pickle slices on the side and, if you ask, he’ll throw in a handful of hot fries, which have been fried twice in lard (as they should be). To go, the whole meal is rolled into a couple of sheets of butcher paper. “You don’t get fancy with barbecue,” Arthur once said, “When you get fancy, you get out of line.”
The original Bryant’s is on the fringe of Kansas City’s renovated 18th and Vine District. During its heyday, the gloriously corrupt Pendergast era of the ’20s and ’30s, this area was swinging—a steamy, wild jazz corridor on a par with those in New Orleans and Chicago. The baseball stadium, home to the Monarchs (an all-black team) and the Blues (a Yankee farm team) was not far away, and between bebop and baseball, people came from all over the city—from all over the country—to play, to listen, and to watch. Once they discovered Perry’s/Bryant’s and all those other neighborhood barbecue joints, they also came to eat. “They were hollerin’ ‘Barbecue!'” remembers Otis Boyd, the self-proclaimed “oldest living barbecue man in Kansas City.” Boyd’s first restaurant was actually a soul food place—”beans and greens and corn bread”—but he says demand drove him to go “straight barbecue” in 1948, which he did until 1995, when he called it quits for health reasons. That said, only the gentlest nudge gets him going about barbecue: “Your sauce is 90 percent of your barbecue,” he insists. “Anybody can smoke some meat, as long as they get it done … But I don’t know how people come to believe sauce is sweet. It should have a tart taste to it … Lotta people tell you you gotta use hickory wood. The best you can get, the sweetest, is red oak.”
About the time Boyd heard the holler, George Gates heard it, too. In 1946, George left his railroad job and started cooking. Otis says George’s son Ollie—who’s now in charge of several slick Gates & Sons restaurants, who’s doing gangbusters selling Gates sauces, and who feeds President Clinton when he comes to town—is “the biggest barbecue man in Kansas City.” He chalks up Gates’s success to the involvement of the whole family. “That’s how you make it,” Boyd says. “You have to have somebody workin’ there that belongs to the place.”
“Mr. Boyd, he did a mean lamb breast, the best in the city,” says Grace Harris, better known as Amazing Grace. Her first job was as a waitress at Boyd’s back in 1968. “Yeah, I taught her,” Boyd admits, “and she does a pretty good job of it.” Now, from 6 p.m. sometimes until well past midnight, five nights a week, Harris perches herself at the end of the bar at Grand Emporium, a nationally renowned blues and jazz club. She keeps busy during the day developing recipes: “I’ve got 52 sauces. Different flavors. I started with just a regular, then I did hot, then mild. Now I got an international sauce, from the islands, and a spicy sour sauce. Those are all I want to tell you about. I also have 52 coleslaws.”
There are no waitresses at Grand Emporium, and no staff to speak of. Customers line up at the counter, under a sign reading GRACE HERSELF MAKES ALL OUR FOOD ITEMS. Here they order the ribs, sandwiches, chicken wings, rice and beans, mashed potatoes—whatever Grace feels like making. She usually feels like wrapping thin slices of brisket around jalapeño peppers or arranging pickle slices like flower petals around the rim of a plate. “I like to add a little color,” she explains. “I love to decorate.”
Back in the old days, barbecue was to live music as popcorn was to movies. Harris helped revive the tradition and helped Lindsay Shannon do the same at B.B.’s Lawnside Bar-B.Q.—where groups like the Lonnie Ray Blues Band and John Paul & the Hellhounds kick it up four days a week and the kitchen turns out your basic barbecue as well as a few Louisiana variations. Shannon used to be a salesman, and he loves the blues. He has hosted a local blues radio show since the ’70s, and, being an enthusiastic recreational barbecuer (and K.C. native), he just assumes that his listeners are whiling away their afternoons in their backyards—alongside a Weber, say, or a 50-gallon drum, or some other barbecue contraption. Shannon urges his listeners to turn up the volume real loud “so that the music can waft across the barbecue.” This, he maintains, will make it taste better. He also believes that he has “a magic pit.” Ask Otis Boyd about magic pits, and he’ll tell you that smoke “rolls like a ball,” and that a flat-top pit produces smokier barbecue because the smoke ball will “bounce back and forth.” Shannon, however, is convinced that his pit, which came with the restaurant when he bought it (and, incidentally, is flat on top), is special. It dates from the ’50s, but it was made of granite from crosswalks that were once graced by the feet of Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Lester Young, and many of the other jazz masters seen on posters, photographs, and paintings inside his restaurant. When asked why he got into the barbecue business, Shannon replies “I was half-crazy, and I wanted to be all-the-way-crazy.”
Magic pits are one thing. Sauce in the blood is another. Danny Edwards is the owner of Lil’ Jake’s Eat It and Beat It Barbeque, a 600-square-foot, 18-stool lunch spot. Lil’ Jake’s has no connection to the restaurant on Main called Jake Edwards, except that Danny’s father was Jake Edwards—yet another legendary player in the K.C. barbecue game. “He was working for a car factory in Detroit in the ’20s,” Danny explains. “A cousin had a restaurant in Texas, asked my dad to run it; told him he could make some money. My old man didn’t have a car, so he got his ass on the first bus to Dallas. He worked there ten years, then came to cook in Kansas City in ’38. I guess he brought a little Texas flair with him.” Texas flair means great beef, and there just may be something to the genetics of barbecue, because Danny’s brisket is so tender it can’t be put through a slicing machine. He cuts it by hand, the old-fashioned way, so it’s thicker than the norm; when stacked on a toasted bun with a splash of sauce and maybe a shake of his ground African bird pepper, it makes what just may be the best sandwich in town.
“I worked for my dad for about four years,” he says. “Couldn’t quite agree on how he was doing things. Did construction for a couple of years, and that was enough. I’m a restaurant man.” When Jake was getting ready to retire, he asked his son if he wanted the place. Danny told him he thought he’d be fine on his own. What exactly makes his brisket so much better than the rest? Danny mumbles something about not being too concerned with other people’s briskets. “Ours is a pretty basic system. Oh, we put drip pans between the fire and the meat so we’re not burning grease, which’ll leave a residue. Really you just have to know when to get the meat out.”
At about 10 a.m., between orchestrating the assembly of 520 lunches—sandwiches, potato chips, coleslaw, beans, and brownies—Danny trims a brisket, toasts buns, resolves a bean shortage, and takes more orders. He’s a favorite of the corporate downtown scene, and his regulars wait with bated breath to see what will happen to their tidy pink barbecue when construction crews start breaking ground on the Power & Light District, an ambitious, multimillion-dollar plan to breathe new life into an increasingly desolate area. “Me and Gigi’s Wig Shop, we all gotta go,” Danny says. “They want me to be a part of the new entertainment complex. I hate to turn a good deal down, but I’m used to my individual thing. They’ll probably try to talk me into two locations. But, you know, it’s hard to be a cook in two places, and that is what I do, cook. And talk to customers.”
Some people just get it.