Kansas City, a Barbecue Adventure
by Jeff Orth
Wikipedia tells us that the word barbecue comes from a Caribbean Taíno word, “barabicu,” which, roughly translated, means “We ate all the tender meat on this Island, so we’re going to have to figure out how to cook the tough stuff.” Records are sketchy because for most of their history the Taíno people were locked in a struggle with their sworn enemies, the Taíno people. Then, of course, Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadores arrived and settled the matter. As a matter of interest, the Taíno history is perhaps a microcosm of global climate change and what happens when you fail to respect the limited environment you are given.
But I digress.
Barabicu moved north with the Spanish to Florida, where it likely died an untimely death due to the snowbirds and geriatrics who much preferred quiche and borscht. But New Orleans caught the bug. They discovered that with the magic of slow, smoky cooking, an entire pig could be consumed in a single sitting. Like jazz, barbecue was born in New Orleans but grew up in Kansas City.
Other areas embraced the style as well. It was popular with folks who could only afford cheap, questionable cuts of meat. Rib, shanks, brisket. Tough and nearly inedible cuts became succulent delicacies with low heat and time. The smoke was shunned by some as being messy and unnecessary and so they invented the crockpot. But to the true believers, that smoke was where the magic happened. A smoke cloud was a signal flag, hung out into the countryside to signal friends and family that a party was mere 8 to 14 hours from happening.
Differences appeared. Memphis embraced the dry rub for pork, and developed the sauce-at-will standard. (Early experiments with other animals were quickly discouraged after Memphian Henry Perry was caught dry-rubbing one of his cats.) Texas looked around and saw the cattle slowly taking over the state, revoked their voting rights, and took a “Cook ’em and eat ’em” approach to vermin control. (Also known as “Gerrymander ’em onto a plate.”) The Carolinas, noting the sweetness of Southern culture, decided vinegar and cayenne pepper was a good idea. Nobody really knows why they thought this was a good idea.
Kansas City liked the dry-rub idea from Memphis but felt that restricting it to pigs was small-minded. Chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, and pork all made their way on to the menu. The best barbecue was still found among those who couldn’t afford steak or pork chops and made do with ribs and brisket. The people in their fine houses thought at first that the poor had started to burn down their own homes, but they soon came up with various excuses to visit the downtrodden neighborhoods. Copies of the styles and techniques of the true artisans then followed. Now, decent barbecue can be found in even the toniest neighborhoods in the Kansas City area. But the very best BBQ is still found where it began: in the dodgy parts of town, where folks greeted you with a smile and were genuinely happy to see you.
Wood Yard BBQ – Honestly, I’ve never eaten there, but true to their name, they have wonderful piles of true barbecue wood. Cherry, apple, pecan, mesquite, and hickory piled and bagged and ready to turn an eager fool with a drum smoker into a backyard virtuoso.
Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) – An early attempt to move the One True Religion out of the poorer side of town. A tip of the cap to its roots by actually being located inside a gas station, but as Keith Stokes told me, “The one true thing they do well is marketing.” Having to drive into the richest county in the metro area is a bug, not a feature. The food is OK.
Gates BBQ – The fast food of KC BBQ. There are a dozen or so Gates locations inside the metro area. The food is good, the sauce is decent, especially if you can take the spicy variety. The experience is wonderful. Taking an unsuspecting out-of-towner into Gates is a favorite experience for the natives. You have been warned.
Jack Stack Freighthouse BBQ – During a trip to Austin several years ago, we were treated to Stubbs BBQ. The folks who brought us kept telling us the sides were the BEST but that weakened their argument about it being the best BBQ. Sides are nice. Sauce is a condiment. If you can’t eat and enjoy the meat without all the frills, your argument is invalid. Likewise, Jack Stack is frequently touted as the best in KC because of the side dishes. What are they trying to distract you from? They actually have decent BBQ (and excellent lamb ribs). But trying to be too upscale hurts their street cred.
Arthur Bryant’s – The pinnacle. What Memphis wants to be, and what Texas aspires to in a beefy kind of way. Everything about the Original Arthur Bryant’s is exactly as Ghu, or whoever is in charge, intended. The location is just outside an industrial, economically depressed neighborhood. The ambiance (or so Connie Willis referred to it), mid-last-century. The attempts to remove the fine patina of grease, futile. The sauce, exquisite. If you are a laborer from down the street, you wait in line. If you are running for President of the United States, you wait in line. (I think if you are actually the President of the United States, the line waits for you, allowances are made.) Your food comes right out of the brick smoker, and the sides are minimal. As Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden showed us, the Wonder Bread under the ribs is a utensil for mopping up sauce, not a condiment. If you prefer kosher, note that the fries are likely prepared in lard. If you are vegetarian, try the pickles. If you are vegan, avoid. This is the birthplace of burnt ends. Even the Texans didn’t figure this one out. Cut the burnt, inedible end off the brisket, chop that up, and soak it in sauce. A Kansas City delicacy. You will find locations all over the country now, but to experience the One True Religion you must travel to 1727 Brooklyn Ave in Kansas City, MO.
And stand in line.