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Things Can Get Heated in BBQ-Loving 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."

On pellet cookers: "People are worried about it becoming robo-cue."

On the open sores on his arms, caused by a scalding he received while carrying a steaming pot of barbecue sauce down the stairs at home: "I would have dropped it, but I couldn't. I needed the sauce."

"Great to break bones with you," salutes Davis as you nudge your way through the crowd, setting off in search of more great 'cue and unexpectedly discovering a city you admire. "It's about Americana and food, family, fun and friends," Wells had said, words she'd used to describe the enduring appeal of barbecuing but that seem just as applicable to Kansas City itself. Most of K.C.'s various downtown living rooms (Crown Center, Country Club Plaza, the Power & Light District) are in Kansas City, Mo., and as unprepossessing and comfortable as such gathering places can be.

The newest of the three, Power & Light, opened officially just last year, and although a few storefronts remain empty, the nine-block shopping and restaurant complex already boasts a dramatic domed vaudeville-house-cum-AMC-theater, a covered outdoor plaza for concerts and carousing, and a nice collection of bars and eateries including, oddly for K.C., a Famous Dave's barbecue.

But not to worry. A few blocks south sits an old railroad freight house that some savvy entrepreneurs converted into Fiorella's Jack Stack, a place so upscale (ambient lighting! beamed ceilings! yup, tablecloths!) that you almost understand the backlash. Can a barbecue joint be great if it's not a joint?

"Yes, it can," says Tim Keegan, Jack Stack's soft-spoken pit master, who most days can be seen barbecuing 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of meat with the help of a staff of 14. A Kansas native whose days start at 5 a.m. (and whose wife's days end at 4; she cleans three of the city's four Fiorella's at night), Keegan motions us to the kitchen, where giant smokers house sizzling brisket, the drippings falling into bubbling pots of Fiorella's baked beans. The kitchen floor is almost comically greasy and treacherous, and we slide gingerly over to get a better view of Fiorella's piece de resistance, a few racks of crown prime beef ribs. They are "the ultimate barbecue experience," according to the menu, and, upon sampling them, we can dutifully report that that is something of an understatement.

Kansas City likes to call itself the City of Fountains, boasting that no other town save Rome has more of them. But it's really a city of districts, we think, because, hey, here's another one: the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District. It's here on the east side of downtown that Count Basie once brought a new sound to the world in the 1920s and '30s, dining on barbecue in between sets (and allegedly spitting on his ribs so no one would disturb them while he played), here that Charlie Parker first played bebop and near here that baseball's Negro National League was founded in 1920. All these contributions to American culture are given fine museum treatments in the district, and at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, housed in an old musicians' union building, jazz greats hold public jam sessions into the wee hours most every weekend night.

A bit farther down 18th Street is another heritage stop, the original Arthur Bryant's BBQ, which dates to 1927 and a period in K.C. history when 18th and Vine, thanks to segregation, was the epicenter of K.C. black culture. Fluorescent lighting, Formica tabletops, linoleum floors, a faded Kansas City Chiefs flag on the wall: the place is so jointy that you don't dare ask why its heavenly brisket sandwiches are served on Wonder bread. (It's a tradition, they tell us, to our wonderment.) Similarly, one never asks the people at Gates Bar-B-Q, another local institution with multiple locations in town, why they cook their french fries in lard. Then again, one never has time to ask any questions whatsoever.

"HI, MAY I HELP YOU?!" scream the women behind the counter at the Gates on Main Street, where you have precisely 1.5 seconds to shout back your order before they brand you hopeless and move on to the next customer. That is part of the restaurant's shtick (the phrase "Hi, may I help you" appears everywhere on the menu), but the barbecue itself is no gimmick. The fries approach the Platonic ideal (hat tip, lard!), but don't overlook the barbecued mutton, sausage and sauces of various heat and intensity.

Also on the list of dishes not to be missed: Gates's Yummy Yammer pie, a sweet potato tartlet that you'll unconvincingly pretend to have no room for before you devour it in three bites.

* * *

Saturday morning, and at last it's time for the trek west. The ribs have been smoking for hours at Broken Arrow park, site of the annual Lawrence Sertoma Cook-off, where 48 teams are today competing in four categories: chicken, ribs, brisket and pork. On the far side of a vast lawn is the Munchin' Hogs RV, the Munchin' Hogs smoker and, bouncing between the two, a force of nature known as Rob Magee. The 45-year-old works as a chef at the Hilton at the K.C. airport when not barking orders at his award-winning team, speaking a language only they understand (e.g., "We're on rib time," "These are two intense ends," "Who's doing au jus?").

Magee has lived in lots of places -- Dallas, Denver, Charlotte -- and sought out a site-specific adrenaline rush in every city he has called home: water skiing, trout fishing, professional motocross. So what does any self-respecting, thrill-seeking, Type A sort do when his career takes him to Kansas City?

"Window starts in one minute!" Magee calls out, referring to the 10-minute period during which teams must deliver their entries to the judges. He has just artfully placed a set of chicken thighs on a bed of lettuce leaves in a plastic-foam box (entries are judged on presentation as well as taste and texture); fellow Hog Richie Allen grabs the package and fast-walks it to the judges' table.

Suddenly there is silence.

"I think Kansas City's the hidden jewel among cities," says Magee, wiping his brow and taking a breather before turning his attention to the ribs, which are due at the judges' table in 30 minutes. Thomas Howe, a Lawrence real estate broker and co-chair of today's barbecue contest, saunters over, adding that he certainly doesn't miss the "slightly raised ambient tension level" of Rhode Island, which he long ago abandoned for the crazy-calm combo that is Lawrence, crazy because it's the home of the University of Kansas, calm because, well, it's Kansas.

* * *

The Munchin' Hogs' chicken, ribs and brisket are all matchless, at least to this taster, but in the end it is not to be. Today, when the mayor of Lawrence hands out the ribbons and prize money, the grand champion will be . . . Four Men and a Pig, an Olathe, Kan.-based team that Magee had identified earlier as a top competitor. The Munchin' Hogs place third.

The Hogs are certainly gracious in defeat, but the atmosphere is one of barely concealed disappointment, an atmosphere, we note, normally associated with our vinyl tablecloth and yours, not Magee's. The difference of course is that: (1) The Hogs' barbecue is actually excellent and, more important, (2) the Hogs don't take it personally.

"It just wasn't our day today," says Magee, shrugging his shoulders as he scrapes the smoker clean. "But you don't give up. You can't. You just have to refine your processes."

You hear that? Buck up. You don't just stop barbecuing. Yes, you've produced your share of incinerated cow carcasses and petrified chickens. We all have. Sure, your present efforts don't so much resemble food as the work of a backyard arsonist. But this is barbecue we're talking about. Barbecue. Surrender is not an option.*

*Unless, of course, you are able to regularly steal away to Kansas City. In which case, surrender immediately and without incident.

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