Food & Drink

Kansas City barbecue takes on a life all its own

KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ The barbecue trail to this Midwestern city, known for its historic rail and steamship routes, pioneer trails and cattle drives, is paved with a thick, ketchup- and molasses-based sauce _ and leads to a crossroads of sorts.

Located midway between two barbecue bastions _ Memphis and Texas _ the city borrows from those destinations: slow-cooking pork ribs seasoned with a dry rub, a la Memphis, and the beef brisket, hot links and ham from Texas. But it also adds pulled pork topped with coleslaw in the Carolina-style and trimmed lamb ribs in the Denver tradition.

Common to all of these meats is the sauce, slightly sweet and seasoned with signature doses of piquant flavorings, which paints the Kansas City-style brand on the barbecued specialties.

To many, Kansas City is the barbecue capital of the world. After all, the American Royal Barbecue contest, held here the first weekend in October, ranks as the largest barbecue competition in the world. It's sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which includes 2,500 members from all 50 states.

More than 100 barbecue restaurants are located almost within rib-throwing distance of each other, and local fans share suggestions by word of mouth and Web sites for the city's best `cue joints. Their advice reflects the fierce loyalties the topic inspires.

These people are serious about their `cue.

"It's not unusual for families to be divided between favorite barbecue restaurants," said Karen Adler, owner of Pig-Out Publications, a Kansas City-based firm that markets more than 200 barbecue-related books, including "The BBQ Queens" books she writes with Judith Fertig. "If it's your birthday, you get to go to your favorite place. Otherwise there's a lot of negotiation in families about barbecue."

The two most well-known spots for Kansas City barbecue are Arthur Bryant's Barbecue and Gates Bar-B-Q. But other favorites include Rosedale Barbecue, where Anthony Rieke first added smoked meats in 1936 to encourage his regular business (which was selling buckets of beer for 25 cents apiece); BB's Lawnside BBQ, Hayward Pit Bar B Que, and Winslow's City Market Barbecue. Among the newer names on the roster: Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue, famous for ribs and brisket sandwiches served with Cajun-style side dishes in a working gas station, and L.C.'s, named for L.C. Richardson, which has developed a big local following since opening in 1986.

Kansas City is barbecue bountiful, but it wasn't always that way. A century ago, records indicate the presence of only one commercial barbecue venture. According to barbecue historian Doug Worgul, smoked meats did not become a commodity in Kansas City until 1907, when Henry Perry, from Shelby County, Tenn., opened the city's first barbecue stand. He smoked pork, beef, possum and raccoon, sauced them and sold them like English fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper.

"Call it divine providence ... the loves of Henry Perry and Kansas City came together and were changed," Worgul wrote in "Great Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue." Perry was one of the city's first successful African-American businessmen, according to Worgul.

Other entrepreneurs followed, also African-American men. "That's because for hundreds of years making barbecue, considered too menial for whites and too difficult for women, was a task performed exclusively by male slaves of African origin," Worgul wrote. He added, "...virtually every reference to barbecue found in America's early historical record includes mention of the slaves who also made the barbecue."

As the interest in home barbecuing grew in town, Worgul wrote, local white-owned companies lobbied for Perry's endorsement of modern pits with newfangled gadgets.

Perry refused. "There is only one way to cook barbecue ... over a wood fire with a properly constructed oven and pit," he said in a 1932 interview with the Kansas City Call newspaper.

Charlie Bryant, who had worked for Perry, followed the same cooking techniques when he opened a tiny restaurant at Brooklyn and Vine, near the city's blues and jazz clubs. When he retired in 1946, Bryant passed the flame to his kid brother, Arthur, who made a few menu changes _ including toning down the fiery barbecue sauce and adding hand-cut french fries cooked in lard.

The burnt edges of beef brisket, available free at the counter, helped launch the restaurant to national prominence in 1974. That's when Kansas City native Calvin Trillin, then a New Yorker staff writer, mentioned them in his book "American Fried." He described Arthur Bryant's as the "single best restaurant in the world."


During a recent conversation, Trillin updated his take on Kansas City barbecue. He remains a staunch supporter of Perry's traditional African-American approach. He's also a fan of L.C.'s.

Trillin, who lives in Greenwich Village and checks out the barbecue scene when he returns to Kansas City once or twice a year, hesitated when asked about Gates'.

He explained that people grow up in Kansas City with strongly divided loyalties between Arthur Bryant's and Gates. "You are either a staunch Bryantist or a Gatite. I grew up a devout Bryantist," he said.

But he did allow that he ate at Gates' during his last visit home, and described it as "very respectable."


Ollie Gates, 75, born the same year the Kansas City Call crowned Perry "Barbecue King," credits Perry's indirect mentorship for his success (and excellent barbecue). His company has expanded into six popular Kansas City restaurants.

Gates was 14 when his parents, Arzelia and George Gates, purchased their first barbecue stand, Ol' Kentuck Bar-B-Q. Their pitman was Arthur Pinkard, then about 75, who learned what he knew from Perry _ thus maintaining the century-old Kansas City tradition of starting the meat "Perry-style" over a hickory and oak fire in open pits.

"I'm convinced that the way you like your barbecue prepared and sauced depends on how you learned to eat it as a child," said Gates, who oversees a business of 325 employees, including five of his six children.

He's also steadfast about not loosening his hold on the traditions inherited from Perry.

"The real Kansas City-style doesn't come from the sauce or just smoking, curing or baking. It's a combination of all that," he said.

President Bill Clinton, Patti LaBelle and Maya Angelou have all waited in line here ... each more than a few times, said Gates.

But, he insisted, "I'm just a barbecue man, not a restaurateur." And he wants to keep it that way.

Does he feel competitive with the other barbecue places in town?

"Not at all ... as long as they keep the authentic tradition going, they aren't competitors," he said. "We're in the same business. When they start using fake flavors, taking shortcuts and generally prostituting authentic flavors, that's their business.

"But I have a problem. They need to find another name for whatever they're doing because it certainly isn't authentic barbecue anymore. They need to start calling it something else."


Like Gates, Fiorella's Jack's Stack Barbecue stems from a family business begun a generation ago. Open the door to the restaurant, near Kansas City's refurbished Union Station in the new, bustling Crossroads District, and you may be reminded of the type of fine dining people sometimes refer to as "swanky."

But this cloth-napkin spot claims homegrown credentials from a family rooted in farming and groceries. And, more important: Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue burns hickory wood in the kitchen's brick oven.

Some barbecue traditions, however treasured, are forced to change with the times.

Danny Edwards, owner of one of Kansas City's favorite restaurants, comes by his barbecue skills naturally: He's the son of barbecue legend Jake Edwards, who opened his first Southern Pit downtown in 1938. This year marks the second time Edwards has been forced out of a location because of redevelopment.

His original restaurant, Lil' Jake's Eat It an Beat It, had to move when the city decided to build a garage on the site. So he moved his restaurant _ which he renamed four years ago to Danny Edwards' Famous Kansas City Barbecue _ to the intersection of 12th and Grand, where he has been for more than 20 years. Now he's had to move again, thanks to a new office building being built on the site, across the street from the $276 million Sprint sports arena that is nearing completion. The new restaurant, set to open in September and located about three miles away, will have yet another name: Danny Edwards Blvd. BBQ.

Thousands of downtown workers, used to walking to Edwards' place, now will have to drive to enjoy his old-school barbecue.

Edwards packed his framed reviews (including big nods from Bon Appetit and Saveur magazines) to take with him to the new restaurant.

"Thanks for your business," Edwards wrote on the bottom of handouts announcing the new address.

"Thank you, Danny," customers told him in return as they waited for their orders.

On his last day of business, Aug. 10, customers were lined down the block. "It brought a few tears to my eyes," he said.

Instead of the 300-gallon upright smokers, the new place will have fancier gas-fueled models with a back opening just big enough to slip in a hickory log or two.

With the old pits out of commission and the fires doused, the corner of 12th and Grand stands poised on the threshold of becoming more up-to-date than ever, but without the familiar hickory smoke blowing in the wind.




Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

_ Ollie Gates does not refer to the spice mixture used to flavor the ribs before cooking as a rub. "It's a seasoning. You don't rub anything," he says. Based on our rib-tasting in Kansas City, we added celery salt and cumin to the basic seasoning recipe they shared with us. Feel free to add your favorite additions to flavor the basic recipe.

Rib seasoning:

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons each: coarse salt, celery salt

1 tablespoon each: sweet ground paprika, ground red pepper

1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin


4 racks spare ribs, trimmed

Hickory wood chips, see note

2 cups homemade or bottled Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, see recipe

1. Prepare a grill for medium indirect heat. Combine the rib seasoning ingredients in a medium bowl. Sprinkle seasoning over the ribs, shaking off any excess; set aside 15 minutes.

2. Place ribs over direct heat, skirt-side down. Cook until ribs start to brown, about 10 minutes; turn. Move the ribs away from the direct heat. Cover; cook, adding about ½ cup of the wood chips to the fire every 30 minutes, turning ribs occasionally, until meat is tender, about 2 hours, 10 minutes. Baste ribs lightly with barbecue sauce; cook, turning and basting every 8 minutes until well-coated, about 25 minutes.

3. Transfer to a platter; let rest 5 minutes. Serve with remaining barbecue sauce on the side.

Note: hickory chips are available near bags of charcoal in the supermarket. Soak the chips 30 minutes to 1 hour; drain well.

Nutrition information per serving:

1,046 calories, 55 percent of calories from fat, 64 g fat, 23 g saturated fat, 255 mg cholesterol, 53 g carbohydrates, 63 g protein, 2,247 mg sodium, 1 g fiber



Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Yield: 3 cups

_ Davis recommends refrigerating extra sauce from this recipe in canning jars. It's adapted from "The Grand Barbecue," by Doug Worgul.

1 bottle (24 ounces) ketchup

1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce

1 cup molasses

½ cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon each: onion powder, garlic powder, hot red pepper sauce

¼ teaspoon each: celery seeds, ground cumin, ground cloves

Combine all ingredients in a large non-reactive saucepan; heat to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until flavors are blended, about 30 minutes. Cool completely.

Nutrition information per tablespoon:

45 calories, 1 percent of calories from fat, 0.1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 210 mg sodium, 0 g fiber



Preparation time: 25 minutes

Marinating time: 24 hours

Cooking time: 2 hours

Yield: 4 servings

_ Based on Danny Edwards' specialty since opening his original Kansas City restaurant, Lil' Jake's Eat it an Beat It, this recipe is adapted from "The Barbecue Bible," by Steven Raichlen.

12 chicken wings, tips removed

2 teaspoons each: garlic salt, freshly ground black pepper, ground red pepper, oregano

1 ½ cups hickory wood chips, soaked 1 hour in cold water

1 cup homemade or bottled Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, see recipe

1. Place the wings in a large bowl. Mix together the garlic salt, black and red peppers and oregano in a small bowl. Sprinkle seasoning over the wings, turning to coat. Cover; refrigerate 24 hours.

2. Prepare a grill for medium indirect heat; add the wood chips just before cooking. Place the wings on an oiled grate on the side away from the coals. Grill, turning chicken and adding additional charcoal as necessary, until very tender, about 1 ½ hours. Baste lightly with barbecue sauce; cook, turning often and basting, until wings are coated with sauce, 15-20 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving:

483 calories, 38 percent of calories from fat, 21 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 29 g protein, 1,410 mg sodium, 2 g fiber



Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings

_ Everyone says that the baked beans from Fiorella's Jack Stack's restaurant are the best in Kansas City. This version for home cooks uses liquid smoke to replicate cooking the dish over a wood fire in the restaurant. Use leftover barbecued brisket to flavor the beans.

2 cans (32 ounces each) pork and beans

2 cups homemade or bottled Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, see recipe

1 cup chopped or shredded cooked beef brisket

½ cup each: ketchup, water

¼ to ½ cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium heat; lower heat to a simmer. Cook until mixture darkens and beans reach a thick, soupy consistency, about 1 hour.

Nutrition information per serving:

321 calories, 10 percent of calories from fat, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 66 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 1,340 mg sodium, 7 g fiber



Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 1-2 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

_ "If you insist on fries with your barbecue, at least make `em sweet potato fries," writes Doug Worgul in "The Grand Barbecue."

4 sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 3-by-¼-inch fries

Peanut oil

1 teaspoon barbecue rub mixture or salt

Pour peanut oil into a large skillet until it reaches about halfway up the sides. Heat to 350 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Add sweet potatoes in batches; cook until tender and golden brown, about 1-2 minutes per batch. Remove from oil with slotted spoon; place on paper towels to drain. Sprinkle generously with barbecue rub or salt.

Nutrition information per serving:

72 calories, 22 percent of calories from fat, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 311 mg sodium, 2 g fiber