The Long, Rich History of Kansas City Style Barbecue

The Long, Rich History of Kansas City Style Barbecue

Kansas City barbecue is world-renowned. While the Carolinas were where settlers began the low and slow art form, Kansas City residents borrowed the technique and developed their own unique sauce-dripping, finger-licking style we devour these days. As the largest metropolitan area in Missouri, this hotbed has a couple of mouths to feed. Texas has beef brisket, North Carolina has whole hogs on a spit, but Missourians are not picky eaters. Kansas City dwellers are known to smoke anything with a heartbeat: cows, pigs, lamb, chicken, turkey, and even fish. With over a hundred restaurants dedicated to barbecue, Kansas City is the hickory-smoking capital of the America. Barbecue-fanatics look upon the city’s smoke-off contests for the best good, wholesome, smoked meals.

The meat in Kansas City is dry rubbed with a zesty and savoury mix of cayenne, garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper. Once smoked, the fare is liberally coated with the city’s tangy, sweet and spicy gift to the world – KC sauce. With a tomato base, this famous sauce is a combination of other traditional recipes: salt, sugar, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, peppers and molasses. The last ingredient is the region’s own proud addition to barbecue sauce, which not only sweetens, but thickens the glaze. The final product is recognisably glossy, sweet, and flavoursome enough to match the smoke flavours captured during a long session over the pit.  

So how did this city become so obsessed with barbecue? The region’s smoke sensation began in the early 1900’s with Henry Perry, the father of Kansas City-style barbecue. The Missouri-native smoked meats and sold them wrapped in newsprint from a pushcart to downtown workers for twenty-five cents a slab. While his beef ribs were the most sought-after item on the menu, he smoked wild game such as raccoon and possums over hickory and oak too. His low and slow business known as “Old Man Perry’s”, which operated out of an old trolley barn in the garment district, became so popular it inspired locals to learn the way of smoking. Eventually, a worker and barbecue student of Perry named Charlie Bryant bought the business in 1940, and with the help of Bryant’s brother Arthur, turned the operation into a restaurant. Arthur Bryant took sole ownership of the destination in 1946, and Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue is still open and serving succulent smoked ribs to locals and tourists.

The city’s old barbecue traditions have lead to many local legends. At the same time of Arthur Bryant’s humble beginnings, another student of Perry’s, Arthur Pinkard along with George Gates fired up their own barbecue joint. Gates opened up Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q in 1946, which was so well received by locals, over the years has grown to seven locations across Missouri and Kansas. However, Gate’s sauce recipe does not contain molasses. While the restaurants of Kansas City were tinkering and experimenting with recipes for decades, the chin-dribbling sweet and thick sauce with molasses only became the city’s sauce in 1977, when KC Masterpiece became available to the world. Its creator, Rich Davis, added extra molasses setting itself apart from other sauce recipes from the area at the time. Davis sold his recipe to Clorox in 1986 and the sauce in its iconic bottle is still available on grocery store shelves across America.

The long, rich history of barbecue is now upheld by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Its 13,000 members worldwide keep the city’s recipes and smoking techniques alive by hosting the most prestigious barbecue events in America. The not-for-profit has developed its own rules and regulations for its three hundred overseen cook-offs. So with this organisation’s smokey sanctioned events, the local lore, and all its restaurants, you can be sure to stumble upon wholesome and sweet, low and slow barbecue in Kansas City — remember to bring plenty of napkins.

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