People in Kansas City are pretty easygoing, not overly opinionated or excitable. Indeed, some say we're moderate to a fault. But if there's one thing we're serious about, it's barbecue.
Close to 100 barbecue restaurants serve a metropolitan area of just 1 million people. (My adopted town does not have an abundance of certain ethnic cuisines, such as Cuban and Ethiopian, but you could, if you wanted to, eat barbecue at a different restaurant every weekend for two years.)
Everyone has a favorite barbecue joint. Or more likely, several favorites, as true aficionados have a special place to go for short ribs, a different place for chicken, and yet another for brisket. Not to mention sauces, side dishes, and the odd specialty (lamb ribs, smoked catfish, sweet potato fries, or yam pie).
To paraphrase historian Jacques Barzun: Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of Kansas City had better learn to eat barbecue.
My introduction to the city's favorite cuisine occurred when I was taken to Arthur Bryant's Barbecue, a stripped-down place where customers line up at a counter for immense beef sandwiches served on soft, store-bought white bread (the only acceptable bread to accompany barbecue) and great mounds of unpeeled French fries cooked in lard (the only acceptable cooking medium for fries).
It was delicious.
Having spent all of my childhood and most of my adult years "back East" (as we say out here), I knew nothing about real barbecue. Bryant's orange, slightly gritty sauce was unlike anything I had seen or tasted before. Despite the seediness of the neighborhood, the place was packed.
I later learned that Bryant's is the establishment that author and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin once pronounced, without a trace of irony, "the single best restaurant in the world."
The evolution of Kansas City into the barbecue capital of the world has been a century-long process. Southern barbecue techniques migrated here with freed slaves and Southern settlers, mingling with Midwestern cooking traditions and with cooking styles brought north by cattle drivers from Texas on their way to the stockyards and meatpacking houses.
As a result, the unique thing about Kansas City barbecue is that we have no unique style, but partake of the best barbecue traditions of many regions. "Barbecue didn't start here. It's just been perfected here," says Doug Worgul, a leading barbecue scholar and the author of an excellent new book on the subject, "The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities, and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue" ($34.95, Kansas City Star Books).
But a few dishes are unique to the area. Sauce that is thick, tomatoey, and slightly sweet originates here. Kansas City's greatest contribution to barbecue, and to culinaria worldwide, is the burnt-end sandwich. Burnt ends are the crispy bits of slightly marbled meat cut from the charred end of the brisket. These morsels used to be sliced off and thrown away, until Arthur Bryant started offering them to his customers for free as a side dish or to garnish a sandwich.
One of the best burnt-end sandwiches in town is available at Lil' Jakes Eat It and Beat It, a classic, 18-stool barbecue joint downtown. The secret to great burnt ends, says Danny Edwards, Lil' Jake's proprietor and chef, is hand-carving the brisket. The tips are then chopped up and run over the barbecue pit one more time and served on a hamburger bun.
It used to be that barbecue was inseparable from live music, and in Kansas City, that live music was most often the blues. Linday Shannon, owner of B.B.'s Lawnside Bar-B-Q, a funky roadhouse in the south part of town, is one of several culinary impresarios reviving that tradition. Mr. Shannon serves up live music, primarily blues, along with some of the tastiest 'cue around.
Like all barbecue chefs, Shannon has his own secrets for great food. For starters, he does all his cooking in an old fashioned, outdoor pit lined with granite stones (no steel smokers or gas jets for him). Then there's the music. Shannon believes - and who can doubt him? - that the blues, wafting over the meat, improves the taste.
Where to find authentic Kansas City barbecue
Arthur Bryant's Barbecue
1727 Brooklyn Avenue
Lil' Jake's Eat It and Beat It
1227 Grand Avenue
B.B.'s Lawnside Bar-B-Q
1205 E. 85th Street
L.C.'s Barbeque (2 locations)
5800 Blue Parkway
95th Street & I-35
Paul Kirk's All-Purpose Barbecue Seasoning
Important tip: Although this is considered a rub, don't rub the mixture into the meat, but sprinkle it on top.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup onion powder
1/2 cup seasoned salt
2 tablespoons celery salt
1/2 cup Hungarian paprika
1/4 cup chili powder
3 tablespoons finely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon pepper
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground celery seed
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and blend well. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
- Recipes adapted from 'The Grand Barbecue,' by Doug Worgul.
Remus Powers' KC Urban Prairie BBQ Sauce
Apply this sweet sauce to meat only after it's been cooked. Most Kansas City-style sauces have a relatively high sugar content. Sugar burns easily, which means that if you apply it to the meat while it's cooking, it will encase your barbecue in sticky, black residue.
1 (24-ounce) bottle of tomato ketchup
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Put all ingredients in a stainless-steel saucepan and stir with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer; and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let cool. If not using right away, pour into glass jars and refrigerate. Makes approximately 5 cups of sauce.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor