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Kansas City Barbecue: Not Just Blowing Smoke

January 8, 1991

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ You can argue about whether Memphis or North Carolina or Texas has better barbecue. You can argue about the proper sauce, the proper meat, the proper fuel.

But there is no argument about one simple fact: Kansas City takes its barbecue very seriously.

Kansas City is home to the world’s most famous barbecue restaurant, Arthur Bryant’s. Jack Nicholson is known to interrupt coast-to-coast trips to eat there. Writer (and native Kansas Citian) Calvin Trillin, ribs partly in cheek, once called Bryant’s the best restaurant anywhere.

And some swear the Gates & Sons chain is even better. The sweet aroma of barbecue overwhelms all bus and truck fumes at one busy midtown intersection right next to Ollie Gates’ Rib Tech, where future cookers learn the science.

There are many other mom-and-pop joints that lay claim to the title of best barbecue around. But the real barbecue, the REAL THING, is cooked by the legion of people who haul homemade smokers to competitions around the region.

″It’s a very tight community,″ said Gary Wells, who doubles as an insurance agent when he’s not tending to matters of the meat as president of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which has more than 500 members.

″They are serious about having fun. They are serious about cooking too. They like things that are a little off-center. It’s every kind of person. We’ve got doctors, lawyers, forklift drivers,″ he said.

And some are even in unexpected places. KCBS members Jim and Kathleen Tabb recently judged a barbecue contest in Ireland (the food was good) and then moved on to another competition in Estonia, where they had an official visit with the mayor of Tallinn in the 14th century Town Hall.

There they were treated to classical music and a performance by a soprano who Tabb said sounded as sweet as Loretta Lynn.

″A first, I’d say, for barbecue to blend itself with culture, sophistication and classical music,″ Tabb reported in the ″Bullsheet,″ the official publication of the KCBS. ″Totally fun and bizarre - sort of like taking a Weber or a 55-gallon drum to the opera.

″Later, while toasting champagne around this centuries old long table, an Estonian official whispered in my ear that the last time Gorby was in Tallinn, he sat exactly where I was standing. A shiver ran down my spine.″

Estonia is probably the farthest reach of the KCBS, although the smoke from cookers goes up in Canada, Vienna, Bermuda and 40 U.S. states. Back home, Wells said when you think of the center of American barbecue, you can envision a triangle from Kansas City to Memphis to Texas.

To KCBS purists, Southern style barbecue doesn’t count because those folks only cook pork; real barbecuers cook beef, poultry and lamb as well as pork.

″In Carolina, the sauce is clearer,″ Wells said. ″They use vinegar and peppers. It’s a mustard-based sauce. As you go west, it gets redder and sweeter.″

Oh, that’s another thing. Never ask a cooker for the recipe to his sauce. You’ll be met with stony silence - if you’re lucky.

″Barbecuing is the process of cooking meat slowly for a long period of time,″ Wells said. ″You control your heat. Disseminate enough smoke. Add moisture. But really, if it works for you, do it.″

A barbecue competition is judged two ways. Under Kansas City rules, a group of judges are given blind samples. In Memphis, where there is a prestigious competition in June, judges go from barbecuer to barbecuer to taste samples.

A typical competition goes like this: The cooking teams arrive Friday and set up shop. At midnight, it’s time to put the brisket on. Then comes a night and day of cooking.

Some teams split up the duties by having one person cook the chicken while others do the brisket and ribs. Others have a chief cook and people to tend the fire and run errands.

Sometimes, significant prize money is involved - as much as $10,000. But mainly, the aim is to have fun.

″You haven’t lived until you’ve been on a field trip with 80 barbecuers,″ said Carolyn Wells, Gary’s wife and a past editor of the ″Bullsheet.″ ″It lets us be kids again. There’s the camaraderie.″

Each year, dozens of Kansas City area members go out into the cold to barbecue turkeys for the local Harvesters group. This past Thanksgiving, they donated clothing and just under a ton of food.

″That is the spirit of barbecue,″ Wells said. ″They are just plain good folks. They’ve got a heart of gold. They would do backflips for you. They are generous in spirit.″

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