Developing a Taste for the BBQ'd Good Life in Kansas City

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

You've stared in blank-faced horror at the charred wreckage that was once your brisket; you've learned to apologize preemptively when the chicken is too dry. You've mastered every coping mechanism that a meeting of minds around a checkered vinyl tablecloth could possibly require, and still you're uneasy. My pork butt, you tell yourself, isn't fooling anyone.

And it isn't.

In desperation, you scare up the latest issue of the Kansas City Bullsheet, a house organ for the largest barbecue society in the world but also a missalette for the growing religion that is 'cue. There you read that the society's 2008 grand champion in competitive team barbecue, an outfit known as the Munchin' Hogs, are competing this weekend. Sure, it's at a public park in Lawrence, Kan., an hour's drive west of Kansas City. But couldn't a trip to this field of dreams, not to mention the neighboring barbecue-mad metropolis, be just the thing to change your barbecue luck (your karma-cue?), turning you from a grilling good-for-nothing to a star of the backyard circuit?

No, probably not, but when it comes to misguided attempts at spiritual repair, can you imagine anything more delicious?

From the moment the plane emerges from the clouds, your attention is pulled in two directions. In one there are rolling green pastures as far as the eye can see; in another, it's all ribbon-of-highway stuff, every road seemingly leading to Kansas City's downtown, part of a more-handsome-than-you'd-think metropolis erected on the shoulders of corporations like H&R Block, Sprint and Hallmark. What you see next: the two rivers, the Kansas and the Missouri, the former emptying into the latter, thereby creating the impetus for a metro area of 2 million split by two waterways spanning two states that were on two sides of the Civil War conflict, and on and on.

Not surprisingly, multiple points of view tend to be encouraged in all matters here -- all matters, that is, save one: barbecue. Fistfights have been known to break out over differences of opinion regarding the city's 90-some joints. Politics, sex and religion are all far safer conversational gambits. That is because loving one's barbecue place, you see, means trashing every other barbecue place to high heaven, often in ridiculous terms and always off the record. (Sample invective: "Jack Stack can't be a barbecue joint. It has tablecloths. But don't print that.")

* * *

It might be just 11:30 a.m., but the lines are already forming at Oklahoma Joe's, a barbecue joint that luxuriates in its joint-ness, operating out of an old Shamrock gas station in Kansas City, Kan., just over the Missouri line. Roughly 500 folks will eat here during a typical weekday lunch service, many coming for owner Jeff Stehney's Z-Man sandwich, a concoction composed of brisket, provolone and, well, onion rings. You see the gargantuan things everywhere in the Oklahoma Joe's dining room, where the crowd is loud, the lunches long, the pork ribs better than you thought possible and the walls draped with large banners won by Slaughterhouse Five, Stehney's team on the competitive circuit.

The patrons this day include Paul Kirk, the self-described Kansas City Baron of Barbecue, fellow expert and author Ardie Davis, and Carolyn Wells, the Kansas City Barbecue Society's executive director.

"Our one rule when we started the organization was, none of it was to be taken seriously," Wells says of the society, patiently letting the laughter at the table die down before continuing. "Another thing you need to know: The mark of a really good barbecue joint is when you see other barbecue people in it."

Kirk is certainly one of these. A Kansas City native with a mock-professorial demeanor who is something of a legend in the field, Kirk is a walking advertisement for how seriously this unserious stuff has become.

On aluminum foil: "I refuse to use it. I call it the Texas crutch. I won't compromise my standards just to win a ribbon."

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