I’m in Kansas City this week, and have spent most of my time here thinking about barbecue. I’ve been an evangelist for barbecue about twelve years, and I should probably explain how this came to be.
I and some friends went to a wedding in Columbia, Missouri, in 1999. This was back in the glory days of road trips, when we could eat gas station snacks without repercussion and smoke without concern and a hotel room was affordable only if there were at least four people in it.
I knew about Calvin Trillin’s famous declaration that Arthur Bryant’s was “the best restaurant in the world,” and I was growing increasingly devoted to a copy of “Roadfood” I picked up for a quarter at a rummage sale, and so the Sunday after the wedding we packed our clothes and hangovers early and lit out for Kansas City. Two of the four of us had a 5 pm flight out of KCI, so we figured we had six hours to eat real barbecue – including some from “the best restaurant in the world” – before we had to drop half our merry band at the airport. We’d spent days planning a route that would allow us to hit eight barbecue restaurants in those six hours.
We made it to five. (We were full and hung-over, and Stroud’s was closed.)
Arthur Bryant’s: Let’s get this out of the way: I did not like Arthur Bryant’s, that trip. I especially didn’t like the sauce. I didn’t like it so much that that I tried a bottle from another table, to see if someone had amused themselves by pouring extra spices into my bottle. The atmosphere is cool, and the work going on behind the bulletproof glass is a pleasure to watch, but Bryant’s brisket sandwich and burnt ends were soaked in sauce and such a letdown that I was worried I had been misled about barbecue.
Ollie Gates’: Good ribs, certainly as good as the best I could get on the south side of Chicago, but nothing worth five hundred miles and so much rapturous prose. I also remember still being boggled over Bryant’s. Seriously, THIS is Kansas City barbecue? Big deal.
Snead’s: Here, twentyish miles south of Kansas City, I finally got it. For this rural little joint is the place where I first had burnt ends. Burnt ends are the parts of the meat that is normally sold sliced that are left over once that meat has been sliced. It’s concentrated barbecue, like a reduction. Brisket, ham, pork, or sausage…they’re blackened and crunchy and irregular and soft and luscious and just f—– absurdly delicious. And with the exception of one tiny joint in, of all places, Milwaukee, I have never, ever found them outside the gravity well of Kansas City. Don’t understand why. These are the best part of barbecue. They are maybe the best part of anything.
Jack Stack: This was challengingly close to Snead’s for another meal, so we all split a big sandwich. Still jacked by the discovery of burnt ends, we ordered the “Chopped Burnt Ends” sandwich. And wow. My God. Easily one of the top five sandwiches of my eating life, and the unchallenged titleholder for quite a while. Imagine a pile of meat with the flavor of smoke and the texture of a fresh Krispy Kreme. Staggering. We ate it on the hood of the car, with the girls taking turns holding one another’s hair so it wouldn’t be blown into the sandwich by the wind.
K.C. Masterpiece: The final stop. We split the barbecue sampler. The meat was okay and one of the sauces was great. I asked what the name of it was if you bought it in the store, and the waitress said that was the restaurant’s sauce, and wasn’t sold in grocery stores. The four of us assuaged our grief with a piece of peanut butter ice cream pie big enough that we assumed there was a t-shirt and a plaque in it for the person who ate the whole thing unaided, and headed for the airport.
Three days later I got home and bought my first real offset smoker, a Brinkmann Pitmaster. I started smoking for friends, and I refer to the thirteen subsequent purchases of backyard smokers as “my grandpits.” I’ve been to Memphis, St. Louis, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama in search of barbecue. I even gave Arthur Bryant’s another chance. (I still don’t like the sauce. The meat is good, though, and the fries are world-class.) I drove bales of wood back to Chicago. And every October, I smoke and freeze enough ribs and pork and brisket to hold me til April, and everything that comes out of my pit is better than anything I can get in Chicago.
And I spread the Word.