For me, barbeque is a labor of love, built on a bedrock of memorable barbeque meals with friends, celebratory ribs at a tailgate, and the pure joy that comes from serving barbeque done right.
Historically the railroads brought an abundance of beef from Texas and pork from the South which married smoky and sweet flavors. However, barbeque culture in KC is built on the shoulders of business men and Pit Bosses who knew their ‘Que was strong. History begins in KC with Henry Perry. Henry Perry, sold barbeque from a pushcart through the neighborhoods around 18th & Vine. Later he’d open up his own shop, taking a young pit boss under his wing, Charlie Bryant.
My grandfather would tell the story of entertaining some clients in town from “up North.” On the way to the airport he stopped by Charlie Bryant’s to pick up a stuffed paper bag full of ribs & brisket. By the time his clients had boarded the plane, the ribs had been devoured and the brisket made into sandwiches and passed down the aisles. When he returned home at the end of the day, the happy clients had called and the deal was closed with BBQ. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times.
Charlie’s younger brother Arthur took over what we know as the greatness of Arthur Bryant’s today. Ollie Gates and the Gates family trace their BBQ roots back to Henry Perry’s shop as well. History & the deafening “Hi, May I help You?” bellow from their brick pits.
Legendary band leader and jazz pianist Jay McShann talks about the cross section of BBQ & Jazz culture found at 18th & Vine in the book,"Kansas City Lightning: The Rise & Times of Charlie Parker."
“So we'd give Smith's barbecue and chicken and Gates chili and Harris's barbecue a rough time… Walk in on one of those three and that wood burning smell mixed with that meat would hit you and you knew good and damn well you was in the right place. No mistake had been made. None.”
McShann recognized men like Smith, Harris, and Gates as comrades. "All of these men were proud of what came out of their kitchens. People were like that then. They worked hard to do something right. That's how everybody expressed himself, putting in that little extra. You had to get it right. Oh, yes, you had to get it right. It would be your signature, you might say. Then people knew who you was. Wasn't no confusion. You were good. The facts spoke up for you. That's right. They sure did. They spoke loud and clear."
With a foundation laid by Bryant’s and Gates, came the next wave of BBQ inspiration that didn’t come directly out of their pits. Food lovers & backyard chefs began collecting BBQ wisdom passed down from those who manned the smokers before them. The annual tradition of the American Royal Livestock & Rodeo Show in KC, started a competition for backyard chefs who wanted to expand their neighborhood barbeque bragging rights. The American Royal BBQ Contest, known as the “World Series of Barbeque” hosts over 500 teams each year and envelops the city in a haze of wood smoke.
Teams of BBQ cookers not only used their old “award-winning” recipes, but adopted flavors and techniques from all corners of the culinary world in attempt to impress the judges. One team that often found themselves in the winner’s circle was Jeff Stehney’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Stehney would later open up Oklahoma Joe’s Barbeque, now called Joe’s KC Barbeque, where he was one of the first to adapt competition style barbeque in a commercial bbq joint.
There are quite a few places that have popped up on the KC BBQ scene in the last couple years that are doing it right. Cooking low & slow, with plenty of love. Q39, Slap’s, Char-Bar, Woodyard, Jack Stack’s, Down-South Grill, and The Local Pig all deserve respect. If you’re ever in Denver, go see my buddy doing KC ‘Que at SmokeStack 70.
I understand that my list is incomplete and I have made glaring omissions. I’ve only spent time waxing poetic on one regional style and flavor set. The appreciation of great barbeque, whether it’s the sweet vinegar mops of the Carolinas or the brisket masterpieces of Texas, is never lost on me. A lesson learned in my first marital fight, which happened to be over barbeque sauce.