Kansas City isn’t a church of barbecue — it’s a bordello
Maybe it was at Arthur Bryant’s where the spirit first took me — confronting a mountain of paper-thin sliced brisket that seemed to share DNA with the ancient delis of New York, smothered in a searing cayenne-vinegar sauce whose vapors threatened to clear the sinuses of my grandkids. Or maybe my moment arrived at Gates, one bite into a burnt-end sandwich made of tangy sauce and charred-fat trimmings cut on the fly.
Back in July, I was invited to Kansas City to offer an outsider’s perspective as 435 picked the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the city. Along the way, I learned that everything I used to think about barbecue was wrong — or at least that it wasn’t right.
I grew up thinking barbecue was church. This was a notion encouraged by the people of Texas, who will turn seemingly anything into church.
In Central Texas, where I lived during the hottest summer on national record, the bible is Texas Monthly and the holy temple is Franklin BBQ in Austin, where fat-marbled cuts of brisket are seasoned only with salt and pepper. In Eastern North Carolina, 20 minutes from where I live now, you grow up with whole hog and vinegar the same way you grow up Baptist. Add tomato to your sauce and you’ve betrayed your people to the sloppiness of the West. Smoke a cow and you’ve abandoned faith altogether.
In both cases, obsession with purity has led to some of the most delicious meat in America. Devotion does that. But Kansas City is perhaps the most barbecue-rich city in America, and it’s not church — it’s more of a bordello.
At a church, there are rules, there are denominations, and, oh Lord, there is gospel. Upon finding a fleck of oregano or a stray dot of sauce on your bark, the ministers over at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, could stop you mid-bite: “This brisket, sir, is not Methodist!”
But in a bordello — or the saloon of any respectable cow town, for that matter — you don’t question how anybody else gets their kick.
Unlike the other great barbecue regions, where the standards have been codified, Kansas City resists all easy descriptions. KC is a sauce town until it isn’t, a town with lean competition brisket unless that beef is served marbled and untrimmed. It is home to both the inventor of burnt ends and a cross-town rival who refused to serve them for decades. Ask six barbecue spots how they make ends and you’ll get six different answers.
The centuries-old black tradition of barbecue imported by Henry Perry from Tennessee has been passed on through generations and remains as venerated and as essential to the character of the city as the mid-century fine dining of Jack Stack and the new-school brisket poutines and herbal rubs at Q39.
In a city as live-and-let-live as Kansas City, a place that might be the downright nicest major city I’ve ever spent any time in, nobody apparently tried to tell anybody else what real barbecue was. Or they did, and nobody listened.
Like most fervent world religions, Texas is now having its regrets. In the process of codifying Texas brisket into a megachurch with missionaries in Japan and Australia, the scribes of Texas Monthly also erased some of their own barbecue history. A few years back, after trying the beef links and saucy ribs at a century-old black-owned barbecue spot called Patillo’s, the Monthly’s barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, published a mea culpa of sorts in Southern Foodways’ Gravy magazine. He realized he’d spent his profession judging all barbecue according to the standards set by the “mostly white-owned joints of Central Texas.”
Kansas City, more than any other barbecue city, has always been what America is about. Barbecue here is a smoky calico quilt of generations-long family traditions and weird-ball experimentalists, amenable to whatever kinky little meat fetish you’ve developed on your own. In the manner of the western half of America, Kansas City seems to have taken on the habits and predilections of anyone who washed up there, no questions asked. And so when Tyler Harp learned a few tricks from the brisket masters of Texas to make our number one spot, he didn’t really bring Texas barbecue to Kansas City. That brisket is Kansas City’s now.