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KC barbecue: Heart-stopping fare in the heartland

By Marina Wolf

I LOVE HUMORIST Calvin Trillin. He doesn't give a damn about what people say when he visits small South American countries just to sample the fish. The rest of us have to make excuses for our excesses. For example, I recently spent two days in Kansas shut up in a room with a 75-year-old man from the heart of Texas and a homeschooled young Christian woman from Ohio. We had been flown into Topeka, all expenses paid, to judge a canning competition.

This I undertook for the sake of Kansas City barbecue.

Years ago, I had discovered Trillin's essays on the best barbecue in the world, which he contended could be found near the corner of 18th and Brooklyn in Kansas City, at Arthur Bryant's. On the subject of barbecue, Trillin is staunchly partisan, but he had reported his friends' contrary convictions in enough detail to catch my attention. So when the opportunity arose to get to Trillin's hometown, I found an alibi and flew out a weekend early.

Trillin always had his wife, Alice, along for such adventures. I have L, who proved her qualifications early in our trip after our first taste of Kansas City barbecue, on the way from the airport to Topeka. The meat was greasy and tough, the beans were runny, and the coleslaw was infested with celery seeds. I was understandably upset. "Oh my God," I wailed. "What if it's all crap?"

"Don't worry," she said calmly. "We'll be trying some more tomorrow."

And so, after a night of indigestion and angst, we went to the Topeka Public Library to fill in the gaps of my barbecue research. It is a sign of L's devotion that she helped me cross-reference two guidebooks, a map, and a dog-eared copy of Calvin Trillin's food collection, The Tummy Trilogy. With only two free days in Kansas City, I had to be ruthless and narrowed the field to the two top contenders: Arthur Bryant's and Snead's Barbecue. How hard could it be to hit two barbecue joints in two days?

We didn't figure on the indolence that can descend after a plate of Snead's ribs. The long, low roadhouse on the southernmost fringes of Kansas City looked innocuous enough. And the waitress smiled as she handed us two towers of toast, fries, and ribs. The coleslaw on the side was superb. But the meat, well, that was really something else.

Here was food that never sees the light of day in California: tender bits around the cartilage, rendered succulent by leaving the fat on, and maybe even adding some in strategic places. And burnt ends, or brownies, as they are sometimes called, the pieces trimmed off the barbecued meats in an effort to even them out--one plate of delicious (carcinogenic, cholesterol-raising, God, I know, enough already!) brownies contained more barbecue flavor than I'd had in my life to date. It was staggering. More accurately, we staggered, back to the motel to recuperate for Arthur Bryant's.

The next morning, parking our rental car, I couldn't stop giggling. I felt shaky and weird, on the way to meet a celebrity. After I got it down to a dumb grin, we walked into the 70-year-old storefront. I've never eaten in a place so steeped in tradition. And smoke. Here, too, I finally understood some of the issues behind barbecue partisanship. There is so much more to sauce than just coming out of a bottle. Spicy. Sweet. Vinegary. Tomatoey. I was also struck by the untoasted white bread, a stark and exotic contrast to West Coast bread, with its organic flour and wild yeasts and artful wrappings. In Barbecueland, bread is but a vehicle for the sauce, or a pillow for the rest of the food.

Any bread with too much flavor would be a distraction from the real meat of the matter.

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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