Monday, January 26, 2009

Why I Love Kansas City Barbecue

"My business is to serve you, not to entertain you."
— Sign on the wall of Henry Perry’s barbecue stand, 1932

Just a fun nugget from my ongoing barbecue research.

Henry Perry, the grandfather of Kansas City barbecue, was a Southern transplant, born near Memphis, Tennessee, in 1875. He bounced around the Mississippi area for a while, working as a steamboat cook and kitchen hand, before settling in Kansas City in 1907. He found work as a porter at a Quality Hill saloon and on the side operated a barbecue stand in an alley off Bank Street in the heart of downtown, where he cooked ribs over a wood-filled pit dug into the ground and sold them wrapped in newspaper for 25 cents a slab.

As his operation grew, Perry moved several times, first to a location at 1514 East 19th Street and then to an old trolley barn two blocks east at 19th and Highland. Perry cooked short ribs, long ribs, ham, and pork over hickory and oak coals, and he was adamant about his technique. “There is only one way to cook barbecue,” he insisted, “and that is the way I am doing it, over a wood fire, with properly constructed oven and pit.” It was this technique that earned him the title of “The Barbecue King” of Kansas City.

Henry Perry was also a barbecue mentor who trained the next generation of Kansas City barbecue men. Charlie Bryant served his apprenticeship and Perry’s stand before setting out on his own and opening a restaurant at 14th and Woodland. He followed Perry’s cooking method, but created his own formula for sauce and soon gained his own reputation as a barbecue man. Charlie Bryant moved his restaurant to 18th and Euclid in 1929, and ran it until 1946, when he retired for health reasons.

Bryant's brother Arthur took over the restaurant, renaming it Arthur Bryant’s, covering the sawdust floors, and replacing the wooden tables with Formica-topped ones. He also toned down the spiciness of the barbecue sauce, since he thought “Old Man Perry and my brother used to make the sauce way too hot” Arthur Bryant was dedicated to his restaurant, arriving at dawn each day and making his own pickles and cutting the potatoes for his fries by hand. Over time the reputation of Bryant’s grew, helped by a parade of famous diners that included Count Basie, Harry Truman, and many Hollywood stars.

The Bryants weren’t the only barbecue men who learned their trade from Henry Perry. Arthur Pinkard began working for Perry in the 1930s, then later moved to a rundown joint called “Old Kentuck Bar-B-Q”, which had just been bought by George and Arzelia Gates. Pinkard taught George Gates the Perry method of barbecuing, which involved slow-cooking the meats directly over a wood fire so that the juice dropped down onto the coals. Gates later passed his knowledge on to his son, Ollie, who now runs Gates & Son Barbecue at 47th and Prospect—one of the legends of the Kansas City Barbecue scene—as well as a growing chain of other Gates’s restaurants in the Kansas City area.

It's too bad I can't get any burnt ends here in South Carolina!

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