An American Barbecue Pilgrimage
In 2005, David Plotz traveled to Kansas City, Memphis, Arkansas, and Texas in pursuit of America's best barbecue. "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," he writes. "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." His series is reprinted below.
KANSAS CITY—So, I go to Arthur Bryant's.
It couldn't be less like Oklahoma Joe's. Arthur Bryant's is on a scary block of Kansas City. The streets are deserted; buildings all around are boarded up. The restaurant has grim fluorescent lighting and ancient plastic tables. We—me and two Kansas City friends, Drew and Maureen—arrived just past 8:30 on Wednesday night, near closing time, and it was almost empty.
There was one man in line in front of us. He ordered the beef. The server behind the counter dropped a slice of Wonder Bread on the man's plate, then he reached back into an ancient, blackened smoker, grabbed a huge pile of sliced beef, and deposited it on the bread, where it formed a tennis-ball-sized mound. The server hoisted a squeeze bottle and squirted a pool of Day-Glo orange sauce onto the meat, then slapped a second slice of bread on top. The man watched this preparation with undisguised lust. He announced to me and the server that he had just flown in from Virginia, and Arthur Bryant's and its beef sandwich were his first stop.
I decided I should order the beef sandwich.
Arthur Bryant's may be America's most famous barbecue restaurant. In 1974, Calvin Trillin famously proclaimed Arthur Bryant's the "single best restaurant in the world." It has gone through ups and downs since then. Arthur Bryant himself died in 1982. (A Kansas City Star cartoon on the restaurant wall shows St. Peter greeting Arthur Bryant at the gates of heaven and asking, "Did you bring sauce?") The ownership turned over. The food got erratic. But the place has stabilized, and Kansas City gourmands agree that Bryant's has been restored to the pantheon.
The beef brisket sandwich was as good as everyone promised. The glowing sauce—a bizarre, grainy concoction of paprika and vinegar—took some getting used to, but the whole combination of meat and sauce and pickle slices and icy Bud Light pretty much couldn't be beat. The burnt ends were great, too, though the beans were disappointing in the usual Kansas City style—too sweet—and the ribs were a mite tough. Considering that this was my third barbecue meal in seven hours, Bryant's was pretty fine, if not the single best restaurant in the world. (It would not, I would argue, qualify as even the second-best barbecue restaurant in Kansas City.)
That night, as I was laboring to fall asleep with six ribs, five slices of brisket, three plates of burnt ends, a slice of pork loin, a bite of fish (big mistake—don't ask), Wonder Bread, pickles, three bowls of coleslaw, and three bowls of beans sloshing around my stomach (and the remains of same stuck between my teeth), I realized I had begun my barbecue expedition woefully unprepared.
First thing Thursday morning, I hit the CVS and stocked up on a BBQ survival kit:
1 box dental floss
1 package baby wipes (useful for saucy hands and cheeks)
1 jumbo box Rolaids
It was a beautiful day, so I walked off Wednesday's stuffing by strolling through some of Kansas City's swanky neighborhoods up to Country Club Plaza, a famous outdoor mall. The city is filled with parks and greenways, and all were blooming and cheery. The houses were handsome. There were lovely bits of statuary on practically every block. Kansas City felt wonderfully comfortable. But it also felt way too bourgeois to be a mecca for anything, let alone something as homey as barbecue.
Yet it is. By common agreement, there are four barbecue regions of America. In Region 1, the Carolinas, barbecue is always pork—sometimes a shoulder and sometimes the whole hog—usually cooked over hickory, then pulled or chopped and served with sauce. In Region 2, Memphis, the signature meats are pork ribs and pork shoulder, cooked over charcoal. In Region 3, Texas, barbecue is beef, pork ribs, and sausage, cooked over mesquite and post oak, seasoned with little except salt and pepper, and often served sauceless.
In Region 4, Kansas City, there is no distinct style. Befitting its Middle American ethos and its geographic centrality, Kansas City is the crossroads of barbecue. It is where beef and pork, "dry" and "wet," black and white, Southern and Western, oak and hickory and charcoal all come together in a happy orgy of meat.
Kansas City owes its exalted barbecue to two bits of good fortune. The first is geographic. Kansas City had the second-biggest stockyards in America, after Chicago. It was also located near large forests of oak and hickory, ideal fuel for barbecue. The second bit of good fortune was cultural. The blacks who came to Kansas City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought Southern barbecue traditions with them and adapted them to the local meat. During the middle of the 20th century, black-run barbecue joints, notably Arthur Bryant's and Gates, operated near the old baseball park and thrived. White-owned barbecue joints followed. In the late '70s, Kansas City doctor Rich Davis started selling KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, which established a national following (despite its rather cloying flavor) and certified Kansas City as a sauce capital. The Kansas City Barbeque Society formed, and the city's small local barbecue competitions grew into giant national ones.
After my long walk, I took Carolyn Wells to lunch at another celebrated Kansas City smokehouse, Fiorella's Jack Stack in the suburb of Martin City. Wells—who founded the Kansas City Barbeque Society and still runs it—is tall, energetic, and charming, with a brassy Southern accent. For a while we batted back and forth theories about why barbecue is so iconic in America—its cowboy roots, the intimate connection of barbecue and drinking, the thrilling alchemy of turning a cheap cut of meat into a delicacy, etc., etc.—until finally she said the most romantic, and most true, thing I have ever heard about barbecue.
"Once, I was judging a competition, and there was a box of shoulder, and I opened it up. It was so beautiful! I just wanted to stick my face in it. I just wanted to bury my face in it."
Thursday dinner was my last meal in Kansas City. It was at Gates Bar-B-Q, another Kansas City shrine. It was my fifth barbecue meal in 30 hours, all of them miles better than any barbecue I've ever eaten on the East Coast. The prize at Gates was a fabulous, crunchy, smoky sausage, coated with Gates' tomatoey sauce (so good, I bought a bottle).
After dinner, I hit the road, trying to make half of the 500-mile drive to Memphis before bedtime. As I headed south through Missouri, I passed a field of cows grazing in the twilight. Gates' brisket and sausage were still heavy in my belly. I turned to the cows and said reflexively, "Thank you."
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.