InFocus: Kansas City BBQ History

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By Christina Lieffring

Kansas City has at least 100 barbecue restaurants in the metro area and compared to other major cities, more barbecue restaurants per capita.

“If you’re from here you really get spoiled for barbecue,” said English Professor Andrea Broomfield. Broomfield’s expertise was on food and dining in Victorian and Edwardian English but when a publisher asked her to write a Kansas City food biography, the KC native dove right in.

Most people settling in the area in the 1840s and 1850s were from the southeast where the soil had been depleted so Kansas Citians acquired southern tastes long before barbecue became a staple. The Harris house was one of the last stops for those going west who could afford to stay in a hotel and eat their famous fried catfish, chicken, greens and cornbread.

“The town has a southern sensibility and a lot of the food is distinctly marked by African-American heritage and particularly slave heritage,” said Broomfield.

An example of this heritage is on the advertisement for Henry Perry, the first to open a barbecue restaurant and who became known as “The Barbecue King”.

“Henry Perry was famous in Kansas City because what had long been a southern tradition of country picnics and celebrations that featured barbecue and that was free, he took [it] and began to retail barbecue for sale,” said Broomfield.

By the 1920s and 30s, Perry had stands all over town that sold meats including opossum, raccoon and groundhog in keeping with barbecue’s slave heritage.

“If you were a slave you didn’t have any time during the day to do any gardening or hunting for yourself,” said Broomfield. “So the meats that you typically ended up eating were available to you at night. In other words, you would be out hunting and nocturnal animals would be the things that you would trap.”

As meat production industrialized and became more affordable, barbecue shifted from mostly nocturnal animals to the beef and pork we eat today.

Perry also had two apprentices: Arthur Pinkard and Charlie Bryant. Bryant later teamed up with his brother Arthur and started Arthur Bryant’s. Arthur Pinkard ran Old Kentucky Barbecue, which was bought by George Gates who son, Oli renamed the business Gates Barbecue after Old Kentucky burned down.

“They passed down the tradition of barbecuing sort of hand-to-mouth through this apprenticeship program,” said Broomfield.

This apprenticeship accounts for the commonalities that make KC barbecue stand out from other barbecue cities. Dean of Learner Engagement Rick Moehring and some fellow JCCC counselors have gone to over 100 restaurants around the KC area, Memphis and throughout Texas over the 15 years.

“The differences are striking,” said Moehring.

Toward the southeast, barbecue is usually pulled or shredded pork with sauce, “almost like it was a sloppy joe.” Memphis barbecue ribs are prepared with a dry rub and cooked quickly.

“To me, barbecue means you slow smoke it. You take some kind of meat that wasn’t really designed to be eaten… and you slow smoke it to make it edible,” Moehring said.

Meanwhile in Texas, the meat is front and center and not usually covered in sauce. In Kansas City, while the meat is important, a restaurant’s brand is all about its sauce.

Broomfield believes that aside from the devotion to sauce and smoking meat over wood charcoal, what is also unique about Kansas City is the variety of barbecue within the city.

“What makes Kansas City barbecue distinct is that there is no distinct style,” she said. “Kansas City really seems to foster an awful lot of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to barbecue.”

Additional research information courtesy of the Kansas City Star. 

Contact Christina Lieffring, staff reporter, at clieffri@ jccc.edu. 

 

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