Beyond the shamrock gas station’s pumps and past the racks of Hostess cakes, a warren of tables and booths makes up the Kansas City, Kan., barbecue joint Oklahoma Joe’s. On a steamy Wednesday in July, the dean of Kansas City barbecue, Ardie Davis, sat alone in the restaurant beneath drowsy ceiling fans, looking at his watch. When he spied us, Davis shot up from his seat, and though it was just after 11 a.m., dashed toward the cashier to place his order: sliced beef brisket, pork ribs, French fries, beans and burnt ends.
The woman behind the counter looked up from her register. “Burnt ends ain’t ready yet,” she said. “Y’all gone stick around?”
“Wonderful,” Davis replied, and explained: you won’t find these caramelized morsels from the edges of the brisket, where the seasoning gathers as the fat renders, on the menu, they’re only served on Wednesdays and Saturdays; in a half-hour’s time, the lunch line would extend out the door, and then ... who knows when they might run out?
Davis wasn’t taking any chances. An avuncular retiree with a sturdy build and snowy hair, he’s the author of five books about barbecue and has been a competition-barbecue judge for 25 years.
Oklahoma Joe’s began life on that circuit in the early 90s as the Slaughterhouse Five, a team of barbecue enthusiasts who got together to cook at weekend championships around the Midwest and the South. The team won so many awards that by 1996, they opened a restaurant.
Compared with Kansas City institutions like the circa-1920 Arthur Bryant’s, O.J.’s was a modern place, using state-of-the-art smokers that cook meat with a combination of natural gas and wood.
When our food arrived, Davis took a bite of the rib, which pleased him immensely. “See this bark here?” he said, pointing to a reddish-black shard of crust on the surface of the rib. “You want it crispy like that on the outside, but tender on the inside. And there,” he said, pointing to a layer of almost lurid pinkness just beneath the skin that extended the length of the rib, “that’s the smoke ring, the sign that it’s been properly smoked.
O.J.’s uses more wood than gas. You go to some places and you can’t taste any smoke at all.” The ribs were, indeed, redolent of white oak and porky, and they disappeared quickly. The brisket was fall-apart tender, a tad dry but then there were sauces to dress it with (permissible in Kansas City).
Finally, the burnt ends came, and they were wonderful: salty, glistening with smoke-tinged fat, and prickly with the heat of black pepper. To us, they seemed to be the best bit, but Davis was having none of it. “They’re too salty, and there’s no bark on ’em,” he said, but conceded, “Concerning taste, there’s no argument. That’s what makes barbecue fun.”
Barbecue: A brief (25 millennia) history
What is it about barbecue? Historians tell us that for 250,000 years, man has applied low, slow heat to proteins to make them meltingly tender and delicious.
Christopher Columbus discovered the Taino people of modern-day Haiti cooking fish and meats on a grate of sticks lashed together and suspended above a fire, and dousing their food with a scorching chili sauce.
Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the New World found American Indians practicing a similar culinary art, and as waves of European settlers and enslaved Africans landed in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they adapted the technique to the food traditions they brought from their homelands and the raw materials of their new environment.
Germans who settled in the Hill Country of Texas smoked fat pork sausages over mesquite or oak of the region.
In Kansas City, a cow town at the crossroads of several important early trade routes, the abundance of pecan and hickory meant that deeply smoky beef brisket and ribs came to define the city’s style. Barbecue emerged as something more than heating and seasoning protein — it became culture.
Every morsel of barbecue tells a story, starting with the meat: if it’s sausage, you’re in or around Austin, Texas. Mutton? Owensboro, Ky. Whole hog might be eastern North Carolina, western Tennessee or upstate South Carolina, depending on which hardwoods you’re using and how you seasoned your pork.
Did the pit master put a dry rub of black pepper and salt on it before laying it over the coals? Did he baste it once it was on the heat, and if so, with what kind of liquid? Did he turn the pig before it was done, and did he dress it with sauce before it was served?
Every decision a contemporary pit master makes might be rooted in tradition, in the choices our ancestors made; and even today these regional differences hold up.
We’d set out on a 3,000-mile odyssey, exploring the contours of American barbecue the way hikers thrill to the changing topography of the Appalachian Trail. We were in search of the ultimate barbecue, of course, but more than that, we were on a quest to determine what perfect barbecue might mean in 2009.
We had notions of the quintessential barbecue joint: family-run (with a few generations on site, preferably), with an authentically acquired patina of age. We were fairly sure the barbecue of our dreams would come from a dwelling with a certain undersung-ness about it (and likely not a place with a punning or deliberately alliterative name, like Swineomite or Peter’s Piggy Palace).
But for the sake of our journey, we set out with open minds, hungry mouths, and — did we mention? — a 1972 Buick Limited. We’d seen the ad for the gold-colored, black-vinyl-topped Limited online about a month before our departure. It only had 90,000 miles on the clock, and we watched as the asking price dropped, then dropped again as our departure date approached. About a week before we left, we sent a check for the car, sight unseen, to a guy named Mick, in Stillwell, a suburb of Kansas City.
Why a 36-year-old, 6,000-pound car, when gasoline prices were running at an all-time high? Because our quest defied common sense, and we needed a vehicle to match.
The Buick had compelling features beyond its 455 V-8 engine and black brocade interior. Namely, four cigarette lighters — critical because we were packing our phones, one laptop for note-taking, another for downloading photos, and a small A/C car refrigerator (we’d be ordering a lot of barbecue, tasting lightly, and would want to keep samples for comparison). But more than all that, piloting the old American workhorse, demanding vast quantities of vigilance, time, and fuel, seemed to project a oneness with the ’cue.
First stop: Kansas City
It was at the airport that we learned Kansas City lives and breathes barbecue the way New Orleans does gumbo. We’d simply asked the man behind the rental-car counter what his favorite barbecue spot was. “Gates, definitely Gates. Best burnt ends — you’ll want the mixed plate, too, with fries,” he said.
Then a coworker chimed in. “Naw, meat’s too fatty at Gates,” Brian said. “Okie Joe’s is the place. The sauce is spicier there, too.”
Everywhere we went in Kansas City, we ran into barbecue. As we fired up the Buick, tightening a loose hose clamp, we watched Mick’s neighbor Larry load coolers into an SUV, headed to Peculiar to compete in “the Peculiar BBQ Roundup.”
Our session with Ardie Davis at Oklahoma Joe’s was a superb first impression, but it wasn’t until we rolled into the parking lot at Arthur Bryant’s and saw the mountain of cordwood just beyond the kitchen’s back door and the chuffing smokestack that we realized there was an element missing from our O.J.’s experience: the process.
Inside Arthur Bryant’s, a snaking line stretched to the door, and as we inched toward the order window, an opening in a Plexiglas wall, we watched, riveted, as the workers performed the rough-and-tumble procedure: pulling a whole brisket, blackened and quivering, from the white-enameled brick smoker; throwing down a broad sheet of red butcher paper; slapping on it a few slices of Wonder bread followed by a generous heaping of brisket ribbons; piling a fistful of steaming, thick-cut fries on top; then rolling the heaping mass into a package the size of a swaddled newborn.
In the fundamentals of pit cookery, Arthur Bryant’s shone: brisket beautifully marbled, lightly smoky; pork ribs perfectly moist, not too salty; the sauce, rust-colored, almost gritty with dried spices, with a delectable Worcestershire-coriander inflection and a brisk vinegar bite. But since the taste, the texture, the flavor is so tied to a sense of place, it stands to reason that the way the establishment envelops you in the process — and its past — matters.
Snoots and whole hog
We’ve heard all the old saws on the subject: Barbecue is like sex — tough to describe, you just know it when it’s good. Barbecue is religion, people say, to explain the rectitudinous fervor that regional styles tend to engender. And we’ve met leagues of barbecue one-upmen from Charleston to Charlottesville, Brooklyn to Laurel Canyon.
All that bluster, all that talk — it doesn’t do much to elucidate the experience of traveling through a place, eating great barbecue.
In St. Louis, we bought the region’s specialties, snoots — no pretty way around it, it’s the snout of a hog — from C&K, a takeout window with nary a wood chip in sight, but a steady stream of locals on a lazy Sunday. We took the platter to the park below the Gateway Arch, near where the Mississippi River had submerged the riverwalk.
Like oversize pork rinds, the texture of a rice cake, the snoots were sluiced with a tomatoey sauce that had the right amount of sweetness and heat cutting through its deeply porky hit. Did we get too wrapped up in it all — the newness of the snout, the majesty of the arch and the fear of the rising river drowning the old Buick? Whatever the case, we loved the snoots, and we ate every last bite.
And it was an altogether different kind of love from the intoxicating one we experienced when we dropped down to Memphis and, in the space of two days, hit Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Neely’s, Central, Leonard’s, Tops, and Cozy Corner — a charry, sticky blur of ribs and even more ribs, with only a trip to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for respite.
We were worried the resulting hangover might color our experience of the more fragile Tennessee whole-hog tradition that lingers on in the counties east of Memphis, near Lexington.
No chance. About halfway to Nashville, we were hunting for a barbecue restaurant among the grain mills and goat farms of Route 69 when a freshly painted barn-red hut came into view, a plume of smoke issuing from somewhere behind the building.
A line of customers queued outdoors by a screened window. By this point in the trip, we knew what we had to do. We ordered our pulled-pork sandwiches, lightly sauced, and made our way to the perfunctory dining room, which is more like a freestanding screened porch.
A truck out back was filled with squared hickory rods — evidently there’s a drumstick mill in the area that sells the curved or split blanks, the rejects, to the local barbecue shops to burn. In a barrel nearby a few bushels of sticks were crackling into the swelter of summer afternoon.
Once the fire settled down, the glowing embers would be shoveled into the smoker to gently cook the pigs. Jerry’s pulled-pork sandwich was outstanding, perfectly seasoned and lubricated, plenty smoky, with a chunky home-cut slaw on top for tonic balance and a sauce that hinted at spice without overstating the obvious.
We were beginning to spot a pattern with the barbecue joints we liked most, a certain disrespect for the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, kitchen and dining room, a fundamental flexibility that allows for the main ingredients — smoke and fat — to flow where they may.
Customers get to see the action firsthand and inhale a strong whiff of the wares. In a roadside setting, selling a product as slippery as barbecue, an open kitchen is an expression of honesty.
Skip the salad, this is barbecue
One thousand miles into our journey, we resolved that perfect barbecue is a liberation from restaurant conventions. It knows no appetizers or white tablecloths.
As we rolled across North Carolina, we categorized the fresh-air, order-window type places that use hardwoods from the local forests and specialize in one style of barbecue as Heritage.
And the chains we had encountered? Those with air-conditioning, the Hi-may-I-help-you waitstaff, the all-things-to-all-people menu and wines by the glass, we dubbed Contemporary.
But in Raleigh we found a third barbecue style — Postmodern — at the Pit. Eyes rolled and tongues wagged in this town when developer Greg Hatem, a guy with a knack for restoring downtown landmarks and outfitting them with upscale restaurants, recruited one of eastern North Carolina’s preeminent old-school whole-hog pit masters, Ed Mitchell, to take up shop in a loftlike former meatpacking warehouse (for comparison’s sake, imagine your local morning show luring the Rolling Stones to be the house band).
Though Mitchell still wears his trademark overalls, the place is a barbecue joint for a new age: the kitchen is a spotless, open, stainless-steel affair at the back of a dining room with — you guessed it! — white tablecloths. All the meats — and, one presumes, the fish and barbecued tofu — are organic, humanely raised specimens.
We chose to sit in the stylish bar area, where college guys drink Bud Light longnecks, gnaw on ribs and watch The Game on big-screen TVs. And while Mitchell’s briquette-fired smokers might raise a few eyebrows farther east in the state, we were impressed by the chopped whole hog, which was classically eastern N.C. in style, with a blast of vinegar, red pepper flakes and smoke, and the baby back ribs, with the lightest brush of caramelized sauce to frame the background smoke and salt. And they were crispy outside and moist inside.
There were some thoughtful regional touches up front we didn’t expect, like a delicious sangria made from North Carolina Scupperdine wine. We had a lovely dinner at the Pit, but that’s just it — the place got us to thinking: At what point does barbecue become so mannered it stops being barbecue?
Wilber’s: Barbecue nirvana?
The following morning, we set out east before the crack of dawn. We’d read — and confirmed over the phone — that Wilber’s Barbecue, in Goldsboro, N.C., opens at 6 a.m., and when we rumbled off the highway and into the parking lot of the sprawling roadhouse at exactly 7 o’clock, three dozen cars had already crowded the lot. Smoke puffed from a fire somewhere and lost itself in the morning’s mist.
We took a seat in one of the knotty pine–paneled rooms, with wooden schoolhouse chairs and red-checked tablecloths, next to a gathering of steely-haired farmers having their morning smokes and trading portentous outcomes.
“I’ll tell you what,” one of the men piped up. “The rain comes, there’ll be a lotta IOU’s going down that river.” In the silence that followed, heads nodded, cigarettes got stubbed out.
Our own bleak future seemed foretold when the waitress arrived and said we could order anything we liked off the breakfast menu, but that the hogs simply weren’t done cooking. Barbecue wouldn’t be available until about 10.
We ordered a breakfast — brains and eggs; country ham; grits — that might have been cause to rejoice in other circumstances, but we ate them in silence. There was a long drive home ahead, and the week’s worth of work to catch up on. We really didn’t have a few hours to kill, but then — what’s a few hours, for the perfect barbecue?
We strode back to the Buick to take stock — still not sure whether we’d be killing time here, or heading home — when we heard a voice behind us: “Hey, aren’t y’all the Lee brothers?” The man juggled a Bible and a set of car keys, then set his Bible on the trunk of the car. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Celebrities right here in Wilber’s parking lot. I’m Willis Underwood.”
We were speechless, not only because he’d mistaken two freelance writers for celebrities, but because we’d just been thinking Wilber’s barbecue was the celebrity and we were the supplicants, waiting outside the trailer for a glimpse.
“Have you met Dennis? Have you been ’round back?” Underwood asked, then beckoned, “Come on!” He lit out past a fence shielding the operation from the parking lot and introduced us to Dennis Monk, who poked at the remains of a log fire that had burned down to glowing coals. A mountain of wood piled at the edge of the adjoining cornfield would last through the weekend, he said, and then they’d get another full trailerload Monday, and a week of barbecue would begin again.
Monk shoveled up some embers from the fire and ushered us through a screen door into a brick shed about three times longer than it is wide, lit by a string of bulbs, with the smoky-sweet smell of roasting pork fat everywhere.
Each of the pits — troughs, really, about waist-high, running parallel to one another down the length of each wall — held a few hogs. Walking the aisle between the troughs, he shoveled fresh coals into the bottom of the pits through openings in the wall beneath each pig.
Monk lifted a battered sheet of tin loosely covering one pig, pulled at a couple ribs, which gave readily, with a plug of meat still attached, and proffered them. “This one’s about done,” he said, but there was one that had already come off the pit, and was in fact being pulled inside the kitchen, did we want to see?
Leamon Park, a 36-year veteran cook at Wilber’s, was upending a bus pan full of freshly pulled pork morsels onto his board, and with two huge cleavers, hacked at it in a rhythmic roundhouse, chopping it down to size. He paused to season the meat with salt and pepper, and then poured what seemed like a gallon of crushed red pepper–spiced vinegar from a stainless-steel pitcher over it. Park tossed the meat with his cleavers, and the pork readily absorbed the liquid.
We ordered and left Monk to finish cooking — there were many more hogs to come off the pit, and much chopping to do before the lunchtime rush. The sandwiches were undoubtedly the best of the pilgrimage, freshly warmed, well seasoned. And by that time, Underwood’s friend had showed up in his ’71 fire-engine red Gran Sport convertible, and Underwood’s wife and sister had arrived, too.
So we all piled into the caravan of vintage Buicks, and we were on to the next place, for another bite of ethereal whole hog.