As dozens of Kansas City area restaurants celebrate Black Restaurant Week, Commentator Rex Buchanan puts down his fork just long enough to talk about Black-owned barbeque joints and a new book that tells their story.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is a freelance writer and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He eats a lot of barbeque on the road and at home in Lawrence.
The book that Rex referenced in this review is called Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, by Adrian Miller.
About this time of year, I sometimes hear people say that it’s too hot to eat. I myself have never been that hot. For it to be too hot for me to eat, I think I’d have to actually be on fire. And even then, I think I’d be able to have a little something.
I like to eat barbeque. And next to eating bbq, I like to read about bbq. That’s why I enjoyed a new book called Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, by Adrian Miller. He traces the role of African Americans in the creation and evolution of bbq in the U.S.
I’ve eaten bbq from Oakland, California, to Owensboro, Kentucky. I once spent three days in central Texas with some guys doing pretty much nothing but eating bbq.
So I know how lucky we are to live in this part of the world. One of my earliest memories of Kansas City is the scent of bbq smoke hanging over old Municipal Stadium before an A’s game in 1962. One time at a Royals game, a guy sitting next to me shared some barbecued raccoon that he’d brought with him. I’ve given this way too much thought, but I believe my last meal might be a beef sandwich and fries from Kansas City’s legendary bbq joint Arthur Bryant’s.
Nowadays Kansas City is known in the bbq world as a mecca for burnt ends, charred pieces of the outside of brisket. I’m old enough to remember when you could help yourself to the burnt ends while waiting in line at Arthur Bryant’s. That’s no longer possible because of some overzealous health department regulation.
Today some of the best burnt ends are at the Jones Bar-b-que, run by two sisters in Kansas City, Kansas. Miller devotes three full pages to them and their place.
Then there’s the issue of sauce. Miller believes that sauce plays an equally prominent role with meat in bbq, and his favorite sauce is from Kansas City’s Gates Bar-b-que. People debate the merits of Gates versus Bryant’s. I myself am firmly in the Bryant’s camp, but I’ve had some excellent burnt ends at Gates.
We have now satisfied the FCC requirement that we give Gates and Bryant’s equal time.
Miller also devotes some pages to Ernestine’s bbq in Nicodemus, the black town out in northwestern Kansas. Ernestine’s is closed now. I never made it there when they were in operation, but their sauce is still available, and I try to pick up a bottle whenever I’m in that neighborhood.
Miller writes about another sauce that was sold in Fort Scott, Kansas, in the early 1900s. It was known as “comeback sauce.” Writes Miller, “When a local newspaper reporter asked about the name of the sauce after unsuccessfully trying to get the recipe, the owner’s wife gave an answer . . . [The wife said,] ‘Everyone that ever tasted it comes back for more.’ Feeling pity on the reporter, she gave that person a recipe for vegetable salad.”
And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m feeling a bit peckish. I think it’s time for a snack. And it won’t be salad.