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.

TAGS: , , ,

ALAN BROUILETTE is a freelance writer of magazine articles, comedy, and scripts. His career peak thus far is his inclusion in the anthology "Best Food Writing 2011." He prefers to writing about food and sports to writing news - which he used to do - and prefers Gonzo journalism to the responsible kind. You can find him, and some of his writing, at brouilette.com.

8 responses to “How I Started Smoking”

  1. jonathan evison says:

    . . . okay, it’s settled, i’m having ribs for breakfast! . . . i’m going to KC on my paperback tour–can’t wait!

  2. Lemme know when you’re coming through. At worst I’ll send you a list; at best I’ll take you myself.

  3. Shel says:

    It’s true. But it’s also true that what Alan makes is overall on par with or better than anything you can get in Chicago. That’s saying something in a town that takes its food VERY seriously.

    And now I REALLY want to try burnt ends.

  4. Carl says:

    Surprised the spices of Arthur Bryant’s scared you away – It’s clearly the best but Jack Stack is very close. I live in KC and get to frequent both as much as possible.

    Gates and KC Masterpiece are awful, but there are Gates fans. Not sure what they like about it.

  5. I’m not sure “scared away” is quite fair; I’m not looking to have my food build character or anything. Turns out, after many more years of research, that I’m just not crazy about that particular sauce style. (I’m also very comfortable with my dislike of Indian food and of green peppers on pizza.)

  6. Big says:

    Alan has brilliantly and succintly made the point that Kansas City barbeque is clearly an inferior species. SUPERIOR barbeque only exists generally in western North Carolina, specifically in the town of Lenoir, most specifically at Hannah’s. Everything else is crap.

  7. I love this: “Imagine a pile of meat with the flavor of smoke and the texture of a fresh Krispy Kreme. Staggering.”

    For my sins I am married to a vegetarian. A very nice one, but oh the longing such a sentence produces. Oh, and I have to say one of the worst meals I ever ate was at the dictates of “Roadfood.” Alas.

  8. I have since learned, also, that Roadfood is fallible. Particularly when trying too hard to be “out there.” Still, they have led me right more often than wrong. Where was the lousy meal?

    (And were the sins worth the vegetarian?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *