An American Barbecue Pilgrimage

Barbecue Mania and How To Cure It
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 23 2005 6:44 AM

An American Barbecue Pilgrimage

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Five years ago, I visited an Estonian farm that had a contraption so perverse and delightful it would probably be banned in the United States: a "smoke sauna." In a normal sauna, the smoke vents out of a chimney while the hot coals heat the room. But in a smoke sauna, there is no chimney. You light a fire right in the middle of a stone chamber that has a couple of windows. When the fire has burned down to coals, the room temperature has dropped to 200 degrees, and much of the smoke has been vented out of the windows, you can go in. My friends and I would sit naked on the wooden benches, wreathed in smoke, drink Estonian beer, and whip ourselves with willow branches (all part of the tradition!) until it got unbearably hot—which usually took about 20 minutes. At that point, we'd race outside and wallow in a pool of cold water till we cooled down. Then we'd go back in. We did this for three days.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

For two weeks afterward, I took to sniffing my arm, just to enjoy the incredible, delicious smokiness of it. Once, after a particularly yummy whiff, I actually licked my wrist.

What happened in Estonia? I had been barbecued.

I am obsessed with barbecue, America's greatest contribution to global cuisine. Before I go any further, I should make a point that will be obvious to many: What most Americans call barbecuing is not barbecuing. When you throw some charcoal on the Weber and sear some T-bones and burgers, you are "having a barbecue" but you are not "barbecuing." You are "grilling." When you grill, you cook fast over high, direct heat. But when you barbecue, you cook meat slowly, over low heat (as low as 170 degrees), and with smoke. Grilling is a transatlantic flight on the Concorde. Barbecuing is a cruise on the QE2. Grilling is a quickie on the kitchen table. Barbecue is tantric.

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This is fast-food nation, but barbecue is America's own slow food. It is impossible to barbecue well quickly. It is also difficult to barbecue alone. And it is no fun to barbecue without alcohol—all of which make barbecuing one of the most sociable hobbies imaginable.

I am a recent convert. Three years ago, I bought a Big Green Egg, a large ceramic smoker based on a Japanese design. The Egg is our family hearth. (When my 4-year-old drew a portrait of me as a birthday present, she depicted me standing with the Egg.) I smoked our Thanksgiving turkey on it last fall and our Passover brisket on it last month. A few days before I began my barbecue tour, I smoked a pork shoulder, Carolina-style, over hickory. It was good. In fact, it was really good. But it wasn't good enough, which is why I headed out on the road.

I had read all the books (Smokestack Lightning, The Barbecue! Bible, Barbecue Americaetc.), seen the movie (Barbecue: A Texas Love Story),and glutted on Food Network barbecue shows. Now I decided to set out on a pilgrimage in search of the greatest barbecue joints in America, an R.W. Apple-ian gut-stuffing to sample as much 'cue of as many different varieties as I could in a week, to try to figure why barbecue was so distinctly American and where you should go to eat the best meat in the world.

(This latter question is impossible to answer without starting a brawl. Barbecue is one of the last bastions of local prejudice in American life: Every state in the South—and some in the Midwest—thinks its barbecue is the first, most authentic, and best in the nation. If you want to see hatred, just put a Texan and a North Carolinian in a room and ask them who makes more righteous barbecue. A Democratic presidential candidate could fracture the Republican South with a few well-placed barbecue ads.)

On Wednesday morning, I skipped breakfast and flew to Kansas City—the northern mecca of Barbecue America. I hopped in my rental car and drove directly to the headquarters of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. KCBS is a funny group—a lark that has turned into a major cultural force. Founded more or less on a whim in 1986, the organization now oversees 177 annual barbecue competitions and certifies 6,000 official judges. In the height of summer barbecue season, there are half a dozen contests around the nation every weekend, some drawing hundreds of teams that compete to make divine pork shoulder and brisket with a perfect smoke ring (the pink outer layer that develops in a well-smoked piece of beef). KCBS has vastly increased both the quantity and quality of home barbecuers, which in turn has increased the quality of barbecue everywhere.

KCBS does not take itself too seriously. Its slogan is "Barbecue—not just for breakfast anymore." The office is crammed with pig memorabilia, including a print of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" with a pig in the starring role. It's called "The Squeal."

They do take meat very seriously, though. Stephanie Wilson, who edits the KCBS newsletter, the Kansas City Bull Sheet, offered to take me to a couple of barbecue lunches. Stephanie lit up when I asked her about her own barbecuing. (She also lit up: She, like many barbecue masters, is a cigarette smoker—appreciative of smoke in all its forms.) Stephanie talks about barbecue the way Washingtonians talk about politics. She can discourse learnedly on different kinds of 'cue and recalls past meals with Proustian exactitude. Stephanie is a vivid example of the recent explosion of barbecue culture . A decade ago, she was someone who occasionally liked to eat barbecue. Today, she is half of a championship barbecue team called "Tom and Josh's Orgasmic Slabs." She and her partner enter 22 competitions a year, spending $500 and up per competition and driving their Lang 84 mobile smoker hundreds or thousands of miles every weekend to compete. She was leaving the next day for a competition 400 miles away on the Missouri-Tennessee border. In 2004 alone, she said proudly, Orgasmic Slabs won the Michigan State Barbecue championship, the Colorado Triple Crown, and the Blue Devil/Sunflower State Championship. Their pork took first at the Iowa State BBQ Championship; their chicken was fifth at the Jack Daniels World Championship; and their sauce took second place in the mild-tomato category at the American Royal—the "World Series of Barbecue"—in Kansas City.(Along the way, she has appeared on the Food Network four or five times, she thought.)

Barbecue is Stephanie's business, her hobby, and her family. When she was growing up, her mother smoked brisket. "She was smoking meat when smoking meat wasn't cool." Her brother had started the Orgasmic Slabs, and she joined the squad after his death. Her sister is on the team. Stephanie's 13-year-old son is a junior member and cooks in "kids barbecue" contests.

All the talk left us starving—plus I had been fasting in anticipation of the trip—so we headed over to Oklahoma Joe's, the newest and by many accounts finest of Kansas City's many barbecue institutions. The original Oklahoma Joe's has been operating for nine years in a Kansas City gas station. A few weeks before, a second branch had opened in an upscale mall area. That's where we went.

While we waited on line to order, I pondered a great existential question about modern barbecue. The Chowhound ethos, which has pervaded barbecue as it has other cuisines, teaches that food should be grimy to be great. Proper 'cue, therefore, can only be found in a floors-slick-with-grease country shack, the meat cooked lovingly over archaic equipment by an ancient, surly monster with an impenetrable Southern accent.

But Oklahoma Joe's was the dead opposite. Oklahoma Joe's looked unpromisingly like any other mall restaurant—T.G.I. Friday's-style memorabilia on the walls, televisions playing ESPN mounted over the bar. After we got our food, owner Jeff Stehney sat down with us. A nerdy 44-year-old, Stehney only discovered his barbecue passion after graduating from the University of Kansas and working in sales for Kraft. In the late '80s, he joined a competition barbecue team, Slaughterhouse Five, which won championship after championship. Stehney decided to open his own place.

Stehney was all business. He walked me step-by-step through the tricky economics of earning a profit at a barbecue place. He spoke managementese, had no trace of a Southern accent, and wore a button-down shirt. Yet he makes transcendentally great meat. The brisket we ordered was moist and incredibly smoky. His ribs were even better, crusty on the outside, with meat that pulled right away from the bone, as a perfect rib should.

Stehney invited me and Stephanie back to the kitchen. He grabbed a "burnt end" that had just exited the smoker and asked one of the cooks to chop it up for us. The "burnt end" is, after jazz, Kansas City's most important gift to civilization. Some great Kansas Citian of the past realized that the ends of a barbecued brisket were the fattiest, saltiest, smokiest chunks of meat on God's own Earth. Every barbecue joint in KC—and practically nowhere else—sets aside its burnt ends, chops them up, and serves them with a little sauce. It is a profound experience to eat them. Stehney, Stephanie, and I stood around this particular burnt end and snacked it into oblivion. Stehney talked obsessively and eagerly about the precise way to cut a rib, and the exact temperature at which a burnt end reaches perfection. Listening to him, it was obvious that barbecue passion has nothing to do with grittiness or ancient traditions, that you can be a barbecue genius in a suburban strip mall as easily as on a dirt road.

The burnt ends stacked up in my belly and suffused my whole body with a comforting warmth. Stehney, burnt end clasped between thumb and forefinger, entered a kind of reverie.

"I grew up in Oklahoma, but I had no experience with barbecue until college. One day, we went into Kansas City, and some friends took me to Arthur Bryant's. I thought it was the worst crap I had ever tasted. Some years later, I was at a friend's bachelor party and someone had brought Arthur Bryant's, and I tried it again, and I realized ..." He trails off, unable to put into words how important this life change was.

He paused and continued. "So, you have to go to Arthur Bryant's. If there is one place you have to go in Kansas City, go to Arthur Bryant's. Go to Arthur Bryant's."

Tomorrow: I go to Arthur Bryant's.

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