Great barbecue sauce is made, not born. Arthur Bryant was born to make it world famous, and he is dead.
The celebrated but unassuming proprietor of the "House of Good Eats" at 18th and Brooklyn in eastside Kansas City, Mo., was stricken with a heart attack yesterday at the age of 80. He had been observing the preparation of the day's barbecue, which usually totaled 2,000 pounds of hickory-smoked beef to be smothered in the tangy sauce that kept Kansas City on the international gustatory map.
President Truman was a regular customer of Bryant's, and in 1979 Jimmy Carter brought his entourage there for lunch. Restaurant patrons included Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson and many other newsworthy personages.
Arthur Bryant's was the linchpin of the house of logic constructed by the food critic manque' Calvin Trillin, who began his book "American Fried" with the sentence, "The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City."
"I knew he had a bad heart," Trillin said yesterday, on hearing of Bryant's death. "I was out there recently and he didn't recognize me. He was almost totally blind, although you couldn't tell because he knew his way around the place so well.
"You could say this about Arthur Bryant: He was an exception to the rule that the barbecue greats get nasty in old age because of all that smoke in their eyes over the years. He was, in fact, a very nice man."
The sauce that made Bryant famous was red in color, tending to orange, and was widely characterized as hot.
"Barbecue's not barbecue unless it's hot," Bryant himself used to say. "Anyone can put catsup on meat, but the sauce has got to be hot. Gotta have a glass of cold water next to it. For barbecue, you got to prepare your mind, and be ready."
Among aficionados, this was a matter of interpretation.
"I wouldn't say it was terribly hot," commented Ed Duckers yesterday. "Not so as to really burn your mouth." He is a legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. "To truly appreciate it, you had to go there," Duckers said. "The place is in an old, run-down, green cinder-block building. In the window are these 10-gallon jars of old barbecue sauce. It's real thick at the bottom, then it gets clear in the middle, and there's stuff swimming in there. You go through a buffet line, get a frosted mug of Falstaff, and leave 50 cents on the corner of the tray for the counterman. That way, you get extra sauce. Once a friend of mine put down a dollar, hoping for a double extra portion, but the counterman wouldn't take it. It was too much, and he was insulted."
The House of Good Eats was not a place where getting too big for your britches was looked upon fondly. It was founded by Charlie Bryant, Arthur's brother, who learned the trade from another legendary Kansas City barbecue man named Henry Perry. When Charlie retired in 1946, Arthur took over and made some changes.
He made the sauce less hot, and he altered the ambiance, replacing wood furnishings with formica and linoleum.
"That's just not barbeque, not when you got them plush seats and the dark interior," Bryant had explained. "That wouldn't be no grease house that way. You can put in an air conditioner and plastic-top tables if you want, but you can't act too fancy or you get away from what the place is all about."
Trillin believes Bryant's sauce recipe was the result of humanitarian, as well as gustatory, considerations.
"When I was a boy," Trillin said, "we always called the place Charlie's, because of his brother. Somebody once said to me of Charlie that he was a great barbecue man, but a mean outfit." This was a reference to the barbecue sauce, pioneered by Henry Perry, that was reportedly so hot that if washed down with water made steam, which was even hotter. "But Arthur was a great barbecue man who wasn't a mean outfit. He didn't want people to suffer."
Arthur Bryant never married. He lived in the same building as his House of Good Eats. He seldom left Kansas City, except to go to Florida each January for a vacation. On his 80th birthday last August, he said he was perfectly content with the way things had come out for him and his barbecue sauce. "I'm going to rot away right here," he said.
Trillin worries that, with Bryant gone, the quality of the sauce may slip and, with it, America's appreciation of the great foods of the heartland.
"The barbecue places and the fried-chicken place are usually one-person operations," he said. "I guess maybe this spells the end of Arthur's."
Trillin also expressed concerned about Kansas City's "Chicken Betty" Lucas, who he says also has a heart condition.
"I saw her a year ago. She's operating out of the coffee shop at Metro Auto Auction. It's a place where these guys are haggling over the prices of cars while they're being served the best fried chicken there is, and I wonder if they even know it."
Trillin has been campaigning for years to have the name of Kansas City International Airport changed to Bryant Memorial Field. "What better time than now?" he asked yesterday.