But seriously, y’all, it’s hard to have a food rivalry when you’re busy wiping to-die-for sauce off your chin.
Clutching my tray, fragrant with smoky meat but top-heavy with a tumbler of sweet tea, I gingerly edge my way through an exuberant lunchtime crowd packed into Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue and Catering, a jumping joint in Kansas City. Someone bumps me, and my tea nearly drenches a teenage girl who, blissfully unaware in cupcake pajama bottoms and a Kansas City Royals T-shirt, is plowing her way none-too-daintily through a sizable rack of pork ribs. After saving the tea from spillage, I nab the last open seat in the place, parking myself roughly two inches from the next customer at a tight counter lining the front window, where the view is of gas pumps serving Joe’s adjacent convenience store.
Tucking into my sublime barbecued-pork sandwich, I’m pulled midswoon back to my surroundings as the dude with the waist-length braid next to me tells his buddy, through a mouthful of sliced beef brisket and crunchy french fries, “Me and my brother are buying a cow. Yep, she’s only eleven hundred dollars.”
The same conversation could have been overheard back home in Fort Worth, and in truth, the whole scene could have been plucked from any number of meat palaces around the Lone Star State. But my palate told me I really wasn’t in Texas anymore.
In Kansas City, with its more than 100 barbecue restaurants -- said to be the most per capita in the nation -- barbecued pork and beef get equal billing, whereas in Texas, beef brisket is the king of barbecue and pork ribs are runner-up. Texas smokehouses will often offer sausage, ham, chicken, and even bologna, but Kansas City boasts more magnanimous menus, replete with all of those plus lamb, catfish, and pulled pork. “If it moves, we’ll barbecue it,” promises Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. And it’s not that the fundamental flavors differ radically either. In both Texas and Kansas City, barbecue is smoked over any variety of woods, with hickory being among the favorites, and Wells says that assorted hardwoods and fruitwoods come into play too.
Indeed, I keep running into hints of the stuff I love at home in Texas, but then, I stumble onto noshes that bring back vivid barbecue experiences I’ve had in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama. Much more present in Kansas City than in Texas is the lavish African-American influence, especially at renowned establishments like Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque and Gates Bar-BQ, where the barbecue resonates with lush soul-food charisma.
The reason for this, says Ollie Gates, who runs the business his dad started in 1946, is that “there’s a difference between cooking and barbecuing. It’s a feel, an emotion. You have to have TLC to do it right.”
As it dawns on me that Kansas City functions as a crossroads of methods, Wells confirms it, explaining that “KC is the melting pot of barbecue. It’s where the Southern and Texas influences converged to form their own style.”
The most notable distinction between Texas’s and Kansas City’s barbecue, of course, lies in the sauce. Texas’s best barbecue comes from little towns around Austin, where the legacy of early German and Czech settlers lives on in intensely smoked meat bearing so much flavor that sauce isn’t an essential component -- and therein lies the stark contrast with Kansas City’s barbecue. In Kansas City, it’s all about the sauce.
A tomato-based creation, Kansas City’s sauce can be sweet or spicy or a combination thereof. It’s often the consistency of ketchup, and its color ranges from bright orange to dark brown. Most barbecue restaurants offer at least three varieties of sauce, and some specialize in no fewer than five kinds. In grocery stores there, the barbecue-sauce aisle, its shelves stocked with dozens of choices, reminds me of the salsa aisle in Texas.