Our city’s barbecue is sweet and spicy, but its history is slow-cooked

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LC’s BBQ of Kansas City, MO. A pit full of meat and a line of customers. // Photo by Chase Castor

The year was 1869, and hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the opening of the First Hannibal Bridge, the first permanent railroad bridge to cross the Missouri River. The opening was celebrated with a parade and a barbecue. 

In 1880, thousands of Kansas Citians gathered to celebrate the completion of an eight years-long railroad connection project. On the front page of the first edition of The Kansas City Star, then The Kansas City Evening Star, an article about the event was published. The author wrote that “a grand old-fashioned barbecue was determined upon… the event celebrated in a manner and style peculiarly characteristic of Kansas City pluck and enterprise.” “The Grand Barbecue,” which Doug Worgul writes about in his 2001 book, was a foreshadowing sign of a strong tradition to come.

This was the beginning of barbecue in Kansas City. Pluck indeed.

Barbecue is an ancient art. Virtually every culture around the world finds evidence of meat being smoked over an open fire pit. Barbecue in the United States likely finds its origins in the indigenous Taino people. The Taino word “barabicu” can be broken down into four parts: ba for baba, or father; ra for yara, or fire; bi for bibi, or beginning; and cu for guacu, the sacred fire. Barbecue in its roots refers to the sacred fire pit. 

Before barbecue turned into restaurants and counter service joints serving up an array of meats in a specific style, it was a tool that enabled mass cooking of large portions of meat to feed crowds of people. Indigenous tribes used it in the Caribbean, and it was spread through colonization and slavery to the upper Americas and woven into Colonial American culture. 

To understand American barbecue better, you have to understand how each region’s traditional barbecue came to be. Virginia and the Carolinas are most likely the birthplace of American barbecue. In Virginia, British colonists used the Native American method of drying meat over fire on a grill made of green wood—later marrying that method with the British method of spit-cooking hogs and other small animals. 

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Chef Justin Easterwood in his restaurant, Chef J BBQ, located in the West Bottoms. Their giant smoker, nicknamed “Big Mila” after their daughter, sits on the street outside the restaurant. // Photo by Chase Castor

When enslaved Africans were taken and brought to the colonies, they brought their use of spices, especially red pepper, with them. The spices, combined with colonists cooking techniques, created barbecue sauce. North Carolina’s vinegar-based sauce developed from the British tradition of basting meats in butter or vinegar to keep the meat from drying out. In South Carolina, a mustard-based sauce came from a large population of French and German immigrants. 

Because it was a popular port along the Mississippi River, Memphis was privy to ingredients not found in other locales. Molasses, which was shipped upriver, and tomatoes were mixed with other spices to form Memphis’ sweet-tomato barbecue sauce. 

Pork is the purist’s choice for barbecue. Whole hogs were the original choice in southern barbecuing since they were a cheap, low-maintenance source for meat. Cows needed more land, feed, and space than pigs, and pigs could be set free to roam and eat in forests when money was tight. Pork was so popular in the South that it became a point of pride. At one point southerners refused to export the pigs they raised to the northern states, and in the years leading up to the Civil War, southerners ate an average of five pounds of pork for each pound of cattle. 

In Texas, however, the story is quite different. German and Czech immigrants had the space and means to raise cattle, so Texas barbecue is cow-based. Brisket and sausage barbecue were developed there. Barbecuing gave Texans—especially those that could not afford the so-called good cuts of beef—time to cook and tenderize the meat into a dish brimming with flavor.

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Tyler Harp of owner of Harp BBQ who prep their food at Crane Brewery in Raytown. Their smoker is a converted propane tank made for them by a company in California. // Photo by Chase Castor

One thing that cannot be forgotten about barbecue is the enslaved hands that made it the cuisine we know today. People will tell you with pride that barbecue takes the worst cuts of meat and turns them into a delicacy. This is true, of course, but is so because of what was offered to (and kept from) those who were forcibly displaced from their homelands. 

The term “Pit Master” originated from its reference to an elderly enslaved person who cooked and oversaw the barbecue at the command of slave owners. The processes and traditions of barbecue form were passed down to those who worked under the pitmaster, solidifying the culinary art form.

Colonists and European immigrants added to barbecue with their mustards and vinegars, but American Barbecue was made by enslaved Africans. They fostered the traditions of barbecue and built upon them. They dug the pits, laid the wood, tended to the coals, and basted the meats. They spent sleepless nights constantly supervising the delicacies only to serve slave owners and politicians (often one and the same) at rallies and large events that celebrated the United States when they had no freedom themselves. 

Such is the irony of barbecue. It is the worst cuts of meats made the most desirable by its careful and laborious cooking process. It is a celebratory American tradition taken from the indigenous people and developed by enslaved people in a country that oppressed them for hundreds of years. 

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LC’s BBQ of Kansas City, MO. // Photo by Chase Castor/The Pitch

This irony continued as barbecue developed. Black people were the entrepreneurs that brought American barbecue to the masses in virtually all of its main locales. During Jim Crow, when Black people were relegated to separate spheres, white people still came to their neighborhoods to dine on the relaxed but succulent fare. Rich people would ignore their etiquette and eat with their hands. Class forgotten in chase of the enticing meat. 

Journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the mid-twentieth century, said that “barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn.” It held true then, and it continues to hold true today. 

Barbecue brought people together when nothing else did, and pride in this culture is firmly cemented across the Barbecue Belt. Each new style of barbecue built on another as traditions were passed down and people moved to different places. The Great Migration brought barbecue to further prominence in the North and West states. Henry Perry is Kansas City’s example of this migration and the forefather of our beloved barbecue. 

The Henry Perry Effect

Henry Perry was born in Shelby County, Tennessee, near Memphis and the Mississippi River, in 1875 (just in between those two grand barbecues that Kansas City celebrated). As a teenager, Perry worked in steamboat kitchens on the river before eventually moving to Kansas City in 1907. 

Barbecue existed in the region before Perry. It was likely brought here by those who moved just before The Great Migration enticed by a booming city with plenty of work on railroads and in the Stockyards. But nonetheless, Perry made Kansas City-style barbecue into the popular tradition he began and passed down to his apprentices. 

After moving to the city to work at a saloon in Quality Hill, Perry decided to venture on his own and began selling his ‘cue in 1908. From his original stand in a Garment District alley, Perry sold beef and pork, as well as game like opossum, raccoon, and woodchuck for 25 cents. 

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LC’s BBQ of Kansas City, MO. A pit full of meat and a line of customers. // Photo by Chase Castor

The offerings Perry sold from his barbecue stand marked his first unique departure in barbecue style. While Perry was of course inspired by his Memphis roots, what with his sauce and cooking process, the range of meats he offered was and has continued to be a uniquely Kansas City phenomenon. Pork in the South, beef in Texas, but in Kansas City there’s always been a variety (although things like raccoon and woodchuck won’t make it to your plate anymore). 

Perry’s barbecue operation gained such notoriety that he soon moved it to 17th and Lydia. Then 19th and Highland, in an old trolley barn that he cooked from during the Pendergast era of the ‘20s and ‘30s when the city was “wide-open” during prohibition. His meat still sold to rich and poor, Black and white alike for 25 cents.

Perry traditionally smoked his barbecue over oak and hickory wood until it was juicy and tender. Then there was his sauce. Fans of Kansas City-style sauce—a sort of sweet and tangy concoction that typically has a molasses base—probably wouldn’t recognize Perry’s harsh and peppery version. Legend has it that Perry used to love seeing people sweat over his sauce that took years to acclimate to. 

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Jones Bar-B-Q of Kansas City Kansas. // Photo by Chase Castor

Even when Perry was pioneering the best style of barbecue in the United States, there was plenty of competition. A 1932 article in The Call, for which Perry was interviewed, noted that there were “more than a thousand barbecue stands in the city.” Even then, Perry held true to his training and traditions, telling The Call that “there is only one way to cook barbecue and that is the way I am doing it, over a wood fire, with a properly constructed oven and pit.” 

Perry’s stubborn adherence to his specific way of doing things earned him the memory of the father of Kansas City barbecue. The other 999 stands he was up against served their purpose but are lost from the collective memory. Perry’s, however, continues with us and is threaded through every decision local pitmasters make today. 

Traditions of Perry’s can be found in nearly every barbecue joint in the city. If they’re not, many purists will say it’s not truly Kansas City-style. Smoking the meat over a wood fire, especially using hickory wood, offering an array of sauces (although none as peppery as Perry’s), and serving up every sort of meat available are Perry’s tried and true staples that are still passed down today. 

Perry’s death and disciples

Henry Perry died in 1940 and left behind him a tradition of barbecue to uphold. Upon his death Perry left one of his three restaurants, Perry’s #2, to Charlie Bryant. An apprentice of Perry, Bryant was committed to upholding his traditions and style of barbecuing. Charlie ran the spot with his brother, Arthur, who came to Kansas City from Texas in 1931 to join his brother and work for Perry. 

In 1946, Charlie retired and left the restaurant to Arthur, who changed the name to Arthur Bryant’s. This is when the slight modifications to Perry’s style of barbecue began. 

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Chef Justin Easterwood in his restaurant, Chef J BBQ, located in the West Bottoms. // Photo by Chase Castor

Bryant changed Perry’s sauce to be more palatable. Perry’s was too harsh and peppery, and Bryant wanted it to be appetizing to more people. Even this change didn’t come lightly for the second generation of Perry’s barbecue.

In the book “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue County,” Bryant is clear that the change in the recipe didn’t come as a means to alter Perry’s traditions. Instead, Bryant said that “I didn’t come up with something new, just revised what we already had. The sauce was too hot for a lot of people so I decided to cut out a little of the pepper. I said we should make it a pleasure to eat and that’s exactly what we did.” 

Bryant’s burnt ends are perhaps one of the most iconic dishes in Kansas City-style barbecue. Originally the dish came only upon request. Burnt ends, or the burned edges of the brisket, were cut off at Bryant’s and slid to the side of the counter. 

Calvin Trillin, a journalist who helped Kansas City reach national renown, wrote in a 1972 Playboy article that Arthur Bryant’s is “the single best restaurant in the world.” 

While extolling the burnt ends in that article, Trillin wrote that, “Sometimes, when I’m in some awful, overpriced restaurant in some strange town, trying to choke down some three-dollar hamburger that tastes like a burned sponge, a blank look comes over me: I have just realized that at that very moment, someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges for free.”

Arthur Bryant’s served celebrities, politicians, and everyday people alike. Bryant grew and maintained the restaurant to be a fixture of Kansas City barbecue and, upon his death in 1982, it stayed in the family for a few years before Bill Rauschelbach and Gary Berbiglia bought part-ownership. Although the restaurant had new owners, the recipes and sauce were barely altered and are still one of the few places you can taste Perry’s pure influence today. 

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Jones Bar-B-Q of Kansas City Kansas and 1/2 of the ownership team, Deborah Jones. // Photo by Chase Castor

Conor Rauschelbach, general manager at Bryant’s, says that burnt ends exist because of Bryant’s. Arthur began serving them for free as people waited for his other delicious food. They were initially a by-product of their time. Back then the pits weren’t temperature-controlled, so meat would often come out burnt at the edges. 

“[Bryant] would have the points or the tips of the brisket get a little bit burnt up. Instead of trying to slice that or serve that in a sandwich, he would instruct his pitmaster just to dice it up into bite-size pieces,” says Rauschelbach. “When he had long lines, which was obviously regularly, he would put ‘em on toothpicks and he would walk them up and down the line, chatting with his guests and letting them taste a little bit more burnt side of the brisket. After a while, it became so popular that people were on him to put it on the menu and he just eventually gave in and put them on the menu.”

As the burnt ends became more popular and technology evolved, Rauschelbach says that Bryant’s had to change the recipe a bit. The technique for burnt ends was one of the only things to change since Arthur’s death. 

“They used to just dice up the brisket cold and put the sauce over it,” says Rauschelbach. “What we found was that when the brisket is cold like that you’re basically just throwing sauce on it instead of marinating it, so we pull the brisket right off the smoker now and dice it up hot and then marinate it with the sauce. We believe it’s made the brisket a little bit more tender.”

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Guests polish off a plate from LC’s BBQ of Kansas City, MO. // Photo by Chase Castor

Although burnt ends are what Bryant’s is best known for, Arthur was quick to assert that everything was equally delicious. After all, that’s what the process of barbecuing is supposed to do. 

In a 1979 Missouri Life article, Bryant said “in this grease house there isn’t a specialty. Don’t have one. Everything you get here is jam up. I see to that myself.”

In the same year that Arthur took over what he lovingly referred to as the grease house from Charlie, another iconic barbecue restaurant opened up just a few blocks away. 

George and Arzelia Gates purchased Ol’ Kentucky Bar-B-Q on 19th and Vine in 1946. The restaurant was one of the original brick and mortar barbecue joints but eventually fell into disrepair. George wanted to turn it into a tavern, but Arzelia disapproved of whiskey, so the restaurant stayed true to its barbecue roots. 

The secret weapon Gates had on his side was Arthur Pinkard, another disciple of Perry. Pinkard stayed on when Ol’ Kentucky was purchased and taught George and his son Ollie (who would eventually take over the business) how to barbecue. They changed the name to “Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q” in 1956.

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Tyler Harp of owner of Harp BBQ who prep their food at Crane Brewery in Raytown. Their smoker is a converted propane tank made for them by a company in California. // Photo by Chase Castor

Pinkard and Gates continued their barbecue in the same ways that Perry did, with few alterations to the process. To this day, they still smoke their meat in a closed pit with three stages. The main departure from Perry’s ‘cue was the sauce that George and Arzelia created. Theirs is a tomato base with vinegar and many secret spices. It’s thicker and brings balance to all of their meats. 

Equally as famous as the meat at Gates is the hospitality. For Arzelia, Ollie’s daughter and granddaughter to the original Arzelia Gates, the entire endeavour has always focused on putting community first.

“I heard it was quite a lively and condensed period. That’s when the city was very segregated, so you had all these people in one area that were doing everything,” Gates says. “The Black dollar was right there in that area. My dad, Ollie, calls it the 20 blocks of Black because we couldn’t move outside of a given area, so we were just kind of contained. From that people did like the taste of Gates—we stayed open until the wee hours of the morning like everybody else. We entertained Jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn. We did have a lot of those guys that would come to eat and we would have to stay open in order to give them something to eat. It just grew from there.”

Gates is focused on barbecue, to be sure. But part of building that barbecue empire that has served presidents, celebrities, and everyday Kansas Citians has been continuing Perry’s legacy in more ways than just smoking meat. 

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A full plate of Chef J BBQ. // Photo by Chase Castor

While Perry served everyone, no matter their background, he was also intensely focused on helping his community. In 1920 Perry fed 1,000 people for free. This began a tradition and each year, for four hours on one day, Perry would give free barbecue sandwiches to the elderly, the young, and anyone who was too poor to buy a meal. During his 1929 giveaway, he gave over 150 pounds of meat to the community. 

Gates continued Perry’s spirit of helping build the community as much as he continued in Perry’s cooking traditions. Ollie Gates, the son of George and Arzelia, and the man who made Gates into the institution it is today, spent the majority of his life working on building a better city. Arzelia thinks Gates’ ties to the community are what makes their barbecue so special. 

“My dad is so community-minded, and wherever one of the restaurants are he tries to beautify everything around it and make people feel comfortable about coming in,” Arzelia Gates says. “With the streetlights, beautification, and that kind of thing so people feel comfortable coming in and sitting down and having some Gates barbecue. The community has been so supportive of us in our efforts to be supportive of the city.”

Kansas City Creativity

Today, Kansas City has over 100 barbecue restaurants, each one claiming to be more different and unique than the last. All of these places, though, showcase the creativity of barbecue that can exist even within a specific style. We’re known for our use of all meats, rather than just pork or beef. We have an iconic slightly sweet and tangy sauce. And, of course, we have burnt ends. 

But within that style, there lies a community with endless creativity. The use of most meats means that each place can experiment in their own niche.

“As a city, we kind of engulf anybody that was doing barbecue around the nation. If they’ve had something that was good then we’ve kind of implemented it here,” Rauschelbach says. 

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Jones Bar-B-Q of Kansas City Kansas and 1/2 of the ownership team, Deborah Jones. Deborah and her sister Mary own the restaurant which was made famous by the Netflix show “Queer Eye”.  // Photo by Chase Castor

For Deborah Jones, one half of the sister duo that runs Jones Bar-B-Q, the utter variety of Kansas City-style barbecue all comes together in hickory wood. It’s that wood that Perry used to start his empire that is necessary for true Kansas City flavor. The Jones sisters use an outdoor pit to barbecue, which inevitably attracts the attention of connoisseurs. 

The biggest break from tradition at Jones Bar-B-Q may be that the restaurant is run by women. Jones is one of few women pitmasters in the area, and women are underrepresented in barbecue at large. Although Jones acknowledges that there aren’t many women in her field, she was initially surprised to learn she was an anomaly. 

“I never look at it as a pitmaster or none of that, it was just us trying to make a living,” Jones says. “It really throws me for the wild when I hear people say ‘oh you’re a pitmaster.’ I’ve been doing it a long time but I guess I never looked at it like that. It’s a male-dominated field. When people hear a woman is doing it, it just throws people for a loop. I guess people just don’t think women do it.”

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Jones Bar-B-Q pit. // Photo by Chase Castor

Jones wakes up to start the fire around 2 a.m., then spends her day taking laborious care of the meat that smokes over hickory logs—watching it and turning it with a fork. The sisters first learned firom their father, Leavy B. Jones Sr. He did barbecue from the ‘70s until his death. The sisters began helping him in the ‘80s, but due to his death and some family health issues, the Joneses didn’t permanently open again until 2015. Their barbecue roots stretch over 50 years, and the Jones sisters think Kansas City barbecue is all about tradition. 

“As long as there’s a Jones Bar-B-Q, I’ve asked my family that if anything should happen, that they try and keep it traditional,” Jones says. “We have a fire and brick pit we burn by hickory wood. I’ve tried to keep that going. Like I say, it’s not an easy job.”

One unique innovation from Jones is their barbecue vending machine. They cook platters fresh everyday and stock the vending machine so people can get food and sauce if the restaurant is sold out or closed. 

LC’s Bar-B-Q has been open since 1986 and has been the go-to traditional ‘cue spot for many. On February 17, LC Richardson, the man behind LC’s, died. There was an outpouring of support from people all around the city, showcasing respect for an outstanding character in the city’s barbecue legacy.

Tasha Hammett, LC’s granddaughter, has been working at the restaurant with her grandfather since she was 12 years old and now runs the business’ operations and management. She says what makes LC’s so special is their commitment to top-tier flavor while still holding true to tradition with their barbecue process and their marketing. 

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LC’s BBQ’s Tasha Hammett, who is the grand daughter of the recently deceased LC. // Photo by Chase Castor

“Our advertising is word of mouth,” Hammett says. “It’s the best and it’s free, and it’s paid off for my grandfather. His products speak for themselves and it makes them returning customers, and then it makes them tell their friends about it.”

Hammett says that LC’s burnt ends are her favorite. The tenderness of the beef is a product of their pit cooking process, but its unique flavor comes from their secret seasonings, which have attracted a dedicated and growing following.

“I think it comes down to his flavor, his process of cooking his meat, and the fact that he fixes every item on his menu as if it’s for himself, so he puts love in it,” says Hammett. “My grandpa has an eclectic sauce that leaves that good taste, it matches well with the meat. He always smokes his meat over hickory for the flavor. He puts the seasoning on so it can marinate while it’s cooking. He’s got a couple of secret weapons in his sauce that make it that perfect amount of sweet, but not too sweet.”

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Taking orders at LC’s BBQ. // Photo by Chase Castor

LC’s still uses a three-tiered pit that sits in the middle of the building. The pit is the most traditional choice for barbecue, and one that is no longer used in the majority of restaurants in Kansas City today. 

Joe’s Kansas City opened in 1996 under its previous name, Oklahoma Joe’s. The owners, Jeff and Joy Stehney, headed a successful competition team called Slaughterhouse Five before they decided to open a brick-and-mortar (in a gas station). When they did open, crowds of people were drawn to their delicious barbecue and their alterations on regional classics. 

Ryan Barrows, Vice President of Operations at Joe’s, says that the restaurant’s focus on specialty sandwiches, like their famous Z-man sandwich, are what makes Joe’s so special. It’s also, he says, their commitment to the melting pot of barbecue that is Kansas City. Like altering Carolina style pulled pork to the local palate. 

“[Joe’s] broke the mold of what traditional barbecue was from some of the founding fathers, if you will,” Barrows says. “A lot of places it was you go in and order a half a pound of meat and a couple of side dishes. If you wanted a barbecue sandwich you chose brisket, or pork, or ham. Even back then, Kansas City wasn’t a pulled pork town as much as it is now. Sliced pork was more traditional. We feel pretty comfortable saying that we helped get pulled pork as it’s accepted today in Kansas City kind of on the map.”

Q39, which entered the barbecue scene in 2014, left its mark through its simple innovation.Things like making great barbecue at a sit-down, chef driven restaurant and offering abundant side dishes set Q39 apart from other barbecue spots in the city. Their expansive menu includes such things as brisket burgers and even some vegetarian options, which you won’t find at many other barbecue places. 

Rob Magee, chef and owner of Q39, believes that his knowledge of barbecue and market trends has made Q39 into a city-wide institution. 

“It’s been great tapping into the Kansas City market with barbecue, because I think everybody’s first love of food in Kansas City is barbecue first,” Magee says. 

Magee spent over 12 years on the competitive circuit. His highly decorated team showed that chef driven barbecue could be competitive and win in Kansas City. When he opened Q39, Magee committed himself to doing that same competition barbecue in the restaurant while also providing a cushy atmosphere and open kitchen. 

“I’ve helped position myself, Rob Magee, to be the barbecue expert in Kansas City. We’re the leaders of innovation, and we’re going to continue going as far as we can with barbecue to take care of every customer that walks in the door,” says Magee.

Both Joe’s and Q39 use some combination of Southern Pride or Old Hickory smokers, which are gas fired and wood assisted but do not rely solely on wood. Relatively new to our barbecue scene is the offset smoker. In it, the meat smokes in a long horizontal chamber while wood is burned in a firebox on the side and requires new wood about every half hour. These smokers are used in the emerging craft barbecue scene, where cult favorites like Harp Barbecue and Chef J Barbecue propelled the offset smoker to popularity. 

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Tyler Harp of owner of Harp BBQ who prep their food at Crane Brewery in Raytown. Their smoker is a converted propane tank made for them by a company in California. // Photo by Chase Castor

Tyler Harp has always been around barbecue. His family started on the competitive barbecue circuit when he was only 6 years-old, and all of his previous jobs surrounded meat. Opening Harp Barbecue was a no brainer, but it’s Harp’s commitment to the craft that sets him apart. He does pop-ups all over the city, most commonly at Crane Brewing Co. But Harp hopes to open a brick and mortar one day.

“We don’t really try to do necessarily Kansas City-style,” Harp says. “Our goal through barbecue is to bring regional styles to regions where that style isn’t available. My passion as far as it relates to barbecue has evolved from just cooking to making the best barbecue we can to, through all my travels, to trying to bring stuff into regions where it isn’t currently available. I tried to gain as much knowledge as I could on all the different styles and bring something different to a place where it’s not of.”

That brisket, thick cut like is traditionally done in Texas, is their flagship item. But all of Harp’s offerings are irresistible. His focus is on bringing quality barbecue to all people, regardless of dietary restrictions. Harp hopes to one day bring more barbecue to vegetarians, for instance. 

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Harp BBQ smoker. // Photo by Chase Castor

While Harp brings some new techniques to the area, he remains rooted in the combination of flavors—sweet, smokey, salty, and spicy—that he sees as the foundation of Kansas City barbecue. Harp sees the craft barbecue scene as the drive to move the entire culinary art form forward while using the traditions passed down in the city’s style. 

“I certainly trend towards new school barbecue, though not with everything we do,” says Harp. 

“We just want to stand on the people that got us to this point and stand on their shoulders and push us forward. There’s a lot of people that gave a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get Kansas City barbecue where it is on the scene. We want to stand on their shoulders to grow and push it forward.”

What excites Harp the most about Kansas City barbecue is the amount of true wood smoked barbecue coming back to the region. Offset smokers are disrupting the popular gas fired smokers of the past few decades. But slow cooking the meat over quality wood is one that goes back to barbecue’s roots. 

“I think traditionally, as far as tradition in the last 20 years, Kansas City barbecue has been cooked with gas assist, and Old Hickory or Southern Prides, which are smokers meant to mass produce as much meat as you can,” says Harp. “But now I think people are kind of realizing that there is a legitimate product behind cooking with strictly wood. The thing I’m excited about is the amount of offset smokers coming to Kansas City. Because I know everytime I see one of those that Kansas City’s taking another step forward to being the best we can.”

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Chef Justin Easterwood in his restaurant, Chef J BBQ, located in the West Bottoms. // Photo by Chase Castor

Justin Easterwood, the man behind Chef J BBQ, always had a passion for cooking over a fire. He’s been doing barbecue since he was 18. Like Harp, Easterwood does his barbecue in an offset smoker. Easterwood’s is located in the cafeteria of The Beast, ironically, off 13th and Hickory in the West Bottoms. The street name was a bit of a calling for Easterwood and serves as a reminder of what he considers “Kansas City flavor”: hickory wood. The only kind he uses. 

“I’m a Kansas City guy, born and raised and grew up around Kansas City barbecue,” says Easterwood. “I always loved researching other regions as much as possible. I try to do the same thing with my menu today and take the best from all parts. I’ve always thought that’s what Kansas City is all about: trying to have a whole good pot of awesome barbecue. Kansas City flavor finds its way into everything.”

That base, a hickory wood smoked barbecue that is equal parts sweet and spicy, is important to Easterwood. Even as he brings in techniques and styles from different regions, he is committed to maintaining that underlying Kansas City flavor, which he says is about love more than anything else. 

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Chef Justin Easterwood in his restaurant, Chef J BBQ, located in the West Bottoms. // Photo by Chase Castor

“Kansas City barbecue has got a lot of tradition into it,” Easterwood says. “The people who started it, Henry Perry and everyone, there was a lot of love that went into that barbecue, and I still think that rings true today. With as many barbecue joints as there are in Kansas City, there’s a lot of people that have a lot of love for their barbecue out there. It’s what it’s all about.”

Techniques change and Kansas City-style ‘cue is constantly evolving. Even those that are firmly rooted in tradition have necessarily departed from the city’s founding father of barbecue. Creativity is the one thing that remains constant. Perry’s barbecue came to prominence because of his creativity. The use of different region’s styles in today’s craft barbecue scene mirrors Perry’s use of all different kinds of meats. The experimentation in spices and sauces is exactly what has been done for hundreds of years in the city.

The commitment to innovation, serving the community, and constantly providing the best barbecue possible is the ultimate foundation of Kansas City-style barbecue. That, and the use of hickory wood. Each of the plethora of barbecue joints open today differ in their offerings but remain committed to that cause. Then, of course, is the love. Without love, no one would be doing barbecue here. The love of providing for the community and of making the best barbecue is enduring, no matter what innovations come along. 

The future of our barbecue could be chef-driven, utterly traditional, or small-batch craft barbecue, depending on who you ask. But the future of Kansas City barbecue has room for all of these differing methods because that’s how it began. Our oldest tradition is one of innovation, and the future of our city’s ‘cue looks bright. 

Categories: Food & Drink