All COVID-19 is Local, BBQ edition

Burnt Ends from LC’s BBQ in Kansas City
(photo by stu_spivak CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here in metro KC, our five county area that straddles the MO/KS border and the Missouri River did a relatively good job of shutting down, even in the face of state-level idiocy in both Topeka and Jefferson City. School buildings were closed, large gatherings were cancelled, and when the two states finally caught up and issued state-wide orders, it meant fairly little around here because metro KC had already done much of what was prescribed. It hasn’t all been easy, of course, but folks adjusted and life has gone on.

Now, though, things just got real.

From this morning’s featured story on the KC Star’s website (with emphasis added):

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue lucked out with a hefty contract two months ago, securing 1,200 cases of brisket at a price of $2.45 per pound. As the pandemic began, meat prices actually dropped and the restaurant snagged another 400 cases at $1.75 per pound, said owner Jerry Rauschelbach.

He said those purchases mean Arthur Bryant’s will be set for the next several months. But they also show how fast the market has moved: brisket was selling for more than $6 per pound this week, he said.

At that price, menu prices would soar by the time the meat is trimmed, smoked and served.

“If I didn’t have brisket and I had to pay $6 a pound, I would take brisket and burnt ends off my menu,” he said. “There’s just no way I could consciously serve sandwiches at 20 bucks. There’s just no way.”

For the uninitiated, a brisket is a big slab of meat with two parts – the flat and the point. The point takes longer to cook properly, so the two parts are either split and cooked separately, or they are cooked together until the flat is done and then the point goes back into the pit. It has more connective tissue that needs longer time to break down, and when done right you get a dark “bark” on the surface of the meat and some of the most tender and flavorful deliciousness on the inside. They’re generally cut in cubes and served either on a plate or a sandwich and when done right, they are spectacular.

There’s a lot of folklore around BBQ and who invented different styles or cooking methods or what kind of sauce to use, and damn near every little thing about putting meat over a fire. The origin of selling burnt ends is not folklore or in doubt: they were invented at Arthur Bryant’s. The point of the brisket was seen for years as waste when you trimmed and cooked the brisket flat for sandwich slices, and the counterman at Bryant’s would cut the point in chunks and set it up on the counter for customers to nibble on while waiting to get to the front to order their food. (Note: Bryant’s has also been legendary for its lines.) Eventually they realized “Hey, we could sell this stuff!” and so they did. And then so did everyone else in town. [Time suck warning: that link goes to a 30 minute video that will introduce you not just to burnt ends, but to a good chuck of KC’s best BBQ joints as well.]

So I’ll say it again: things are getting real in KC when Arthur Bryant’s is even contemplating having to take burnt ends off the menu.

I do not want to dismiss what’s happening in hospitals and prisons and nursing homes. That’s as real as real gets. I know a lot of folks in a meatpacking town in southeast Kansas where a cluster of cases has emerged. Things got real there, really quickly, once that hit. What I am saying here is that KC takes its BBQ seriously — as seriously as the pope takes communion — and this nugget about Arthur Bryant’s BBQ is a very KC-specific cultural sign of just how deeply this pandemic is hitting. We can deal with closing our school buildings and postponing our April elections until June and even closing our church buildings, but burnt ends going off the menu of Arthur Bryant’s (even temporarily) would truly be a sign of the apocalypse.

But if BBQ is the way Kansas City identifies the the apocalypse, it’s also how KC identifies hope.

For several years, Jim White has been active in Operation BBQ Relief. which was founded in KC by a bunch of folks in the competition BBQ world. Over the last 9 years, OBR has expanded across the country, and their crews of volunteers have taken their cookers to areas hit by natural disasters, to feed both those hit by the disaster and the emergency workers who come in trying to deal with it. When I sent Jim, Marcy, Bmaz, and some others a link to the KC Star piece, Jim replied with a link to an April 8 press release about OBR and their newest project, Operation Restaurant Relief:

In addition to deploying their trademark effort of providing hot barbecue meals to those affected by natural disasters, Operation BBQ Relief launched a new program called Operation Restaurant Relief with great success last week in Kansas City.

The new initiative revives closed restaurants by utilizing their kitchens to provide free meals to those in need and those on the front lines. As part of the effort, the restaurants will rehire laid off workers to comply with the program and receive a stipend for their participation from Operation BBQ Relief.

Jim could tell you a lot more about OBR, but he’s got a very important matter to attend to at the moment* so unless/until he shows up in the comments, let me direct you to their website at the link above. He did share with me his impression that OBR is doing “pretty amazing work for a group that is populated with folks who lean to the more conservative side of things – sometimes very conservative. They are slowly learning empathy.” This sounded familiar, and sure enough, Jim wrote in more depth about this kind of empathy after he worked on a OBR mission in Wilmington, NC.

That’s another thing about BBQ. Here in KC, despite having a long and ugly history when it comes to race, BBQ is one of those things that does better when it comes to crossing racial divides, in part because some of the most respected historic BBQ joints around here are African American. Even if someone’s favorite ‘cue doesn’t come from Bryant’s or Gates or LC’s, these places get a lot of respect. Arthur Bryant’s and the original location of the Gates chain are in areas of KC that a fair number of white folk would never dream of entering — but they’ll go there happily to get their BBQ fix if that’s their favorite.  Put it this way: BBQ lovers have very firm opinions about color and argue a lot about color, but they’re usually talking about the smoke ring when you cut the meat open or the overall doneness of what you’ve prepared, not the color of the cook’s skin or anyone else’s. And when people share a disaster response cooking line with folks who don’t look like themselves, it changes the way people see each other – that’s the empathy part.

Back in the day, I waited tables and washed dishes, so I know what restaurant life is like from the worker’s point of view. If you’ve got some money and are looking for a charity out there doing great COVID-19 work on the non-medical front, you could do a lot worse than Operation BBQ Relief and their restaurant relief program.

And if you’re a praying kind of person, you might pray that burnt ends do not disappear from the menu of Arthur Bryant’s.



* Marcy, knowing what happens when BBQ lovers start talking BBQ, interrupted our email discussion before it could really get going, with the observation that this subject “would be a lovely post if any one of you had access to a blog.” Since I brought up the subject, I agreed I could write it up. Jim, for his part, begged off: “The BBQ site I hang out on is having a virtual cookoff. We had two weeks to submit an entry and I forgot to load up on interesting stuff to cook and submit. But we got a spaghetti squash in our CSA basket yesterday and I have some chicken breast and sweet peppers around. Gonna roast the squash and a bunch of veggies on the grill with the chicken and then make pasta sauce to go on it with the chicken.”

Jim may hold various heretical BBQ notions, but those words above comes from the heart of a true BBQ person. When your plans go awry (or you forget to follow them), you make do with what you’ve got — and that menu sounds delicious.

34 replies
  1. Rugger9 says:

    Thanks for the real stuff on BBQ. We have a lot of posers here in Silicon Valley, but like the water for NYC pizza, the air for SF sourdough, we have KC ambience.

    • Peterr says:

      I know what you mean. I spent 11 years in the Bay area, and every year when we came back to KC for Christmas/New Years, we had to get our fix of the real stuff.

      Of course, that works in both directions. We all became great seafood lovers, which is much harder to deal with living in KC.

  2. Terry Salad says:

    Unpopular opinion I have: as a native of Chicago, I say our city is vastly overrated for barbecue. I prefer most any other style and can not recommend a place in Chicago in good faith to anyone. And I’ve tried them all here in Chicago.

    • vvv says:

      And there’s that place on Damen on the east side south of Irving …
      Best is my house.

      • blueedredcounty says:

        I grew up in the near NW suburbs, a little town called River Grove.

        The local BBQ place everyone loved, that’s still there, is Russell’s. Never cared for it much, didn’t like their BBQ sauce.

        It totally escapes me at the moment the ribs I would always get at Taste of Chicago during the 80’s. Wasn’t Robinson’s, although I’d had those from their Oak Park location when I working at a Rockwell plant in Cicero.

        My dad had a co-worker who lived in Old Town. Usually when we went to visit, we would go over to Twin Anchors. It had been famous ever since Sinatra was in town and went there for ribs. It’s been YEARS since I have been there, but I noticed it is still showing up on the internet as one of the top rib places in town. I guess I am mostly amazed they are still in business, it is a neighborhood tavern.

        • vvv says:

          Southsider here. I’ve had Robinsons’; good but kinda too much sauce.

          Me, I do the dry rub, mebbe a light vinegar-based sauce on the smoker. And I like ’em cooked low and slow for 5 hours or hot and quick for 1 hour – I just like ’em.

          Unless it’s winter and I dump sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s Hot, mebbe) and country ribs and onions in the crock pot.

          But if you get the chance – Smoque is good.

      • Terry Salad says:

        Smoque is OK, although they are distinctly not “Chicago style.” They are more Texas style. Bricks on Damien is also not bad, but also not Chicagostyle. I’ve never understood why Twin Anchors is so popular. Nice place for a burger but I avoid the ribs.

        • vvv says:

          Never been to the Twin, but you are right on the Texas thing.

          Once married to a Texan, I ate a lot of BBQ down McAllen way, where it always came with a loaf of white bread on the table, so you could wipe your fingers and eat the “napkin”.

        • P J Evans says:

          I guess it depends on where y’all are in Texas. I was in the South Plains, a little south of the Panhandle, and barbecue wasn’t that big a thing there. Some people had grills and smokers that could travel in the beck of their pickup, or on a trailer, but most people didn’t seem to be into it.

        • vvv says:

          It is a big state! I was 6 miles off the border, a little town called Weslaco, and we also honeymooned and vaca’d in St. Antontio.
          Interesting co-inkydink: about a year after I married, my Chicago cousin married a girl from the same town. His wife was a few years older than mine and Latinx, mine was the daughter of a racist police captain from Corpus (RIP). They are still happily together, and have recently adopted his 16 y.o. granddaughter as their daughter; I am ecstatically divorced and mine are adults.

  3. Flatulus says:

    Calvin Trillin wrote lovingly about Arthur Bryant’s in Alice Let’s Eat.

    With all the news of Covid-19 outbreaks in packing houses one wonders whether any of the meat has been tested?

    • Peterr says:

      Cooking should take care of that. Per the CDC’s FAQ: “Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. . . . Based on information about this novel coronavirus thus far, it seems unlikely that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food.”

      I would imagine this to be doubly true of barbequed meat. I’ll smoke a pork shoulder over a 225-250 degree BBQ for 8-10 hours.

      Now catching the virus at a BBQ competition . . . that’s a whole ‘nuther matter.

  4. e.a.f. says:

    Yes, the end of time has come. BBQ item leaving the menu. some may think its trivial, but I do understand, even though I don’t eat BBQ or pork. The end of days had come for me, when the hair stylist closed her doors. Now I can see what colour my hair is and omg, thankfully my leg is fractured and no one sees me.

    I have seen, on the news, the people who BBQ and go to disaster areas to work and help. Its amazing.

    Here on the west coast of B.C. it would be like barbequed salmon was no longer available. I would know the end of life as I knew it was over.

    Thank you for the fun read and I do hope that not only do things improve in the U.S.A. but that the barbeque situation improves. gees, some comfort foods can not be played around with

  5. John Paul Jones says:

    There’s a Netflix show called “Ugly Delicious,” and they had a fantastic episode last season on barbeque, including a look-in at a couple of competitions. I was amazed to see cooks who clearly skewed conservative getting along just fine with others who were not of the same political or racial stamp as themselves. Good show, mostly.

  6. Zinsky says:

    My wife and I lived in KCMO for almost a decade about 25 years ago. i grew to love the BBQ there – to the point I can barely stand to eat barbeque from anywhere else. I was a big fan of Gates BBQ and it’s spicy, celery seed sauce. I had to get some at least once every two weeks or I went into withdrawal. I also loved Rosedale BBQ on the KCK side, Smokehouse BBQ in Gladstone and, of course, L’il Jakes Eat It and Beat It downtown. Thanks for bringing up a topic close to my heart (and treasured by my stomach)!

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Peterr, did you ever have much interaction with Sly James when he was mayor? As I recall, he’s a big fan of KC steaks and barbecue.

  8. Jim White says:

    Okay. It took a while to write up my entry in the competition, but here’s a tweet with some pics from the cook:

    As Peterr and several of you in comments have mentioned, barbecue has a very interesting way of bringing together people who otherwise would have almost nothing in common. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by by Operation BBQ Relief and At the AR site, the chatroom behind the paywall is very heavily moderated and both politics and religion are strictly off limits. The result is a lot of fun discussion of cooking techniques, cookers and even wider ranging discussion. And allows people to hear from folks not very much like them and find something in common.

    It is nice solace in such a divided world.
    As for Kansas City barbecue, Lisa and her family were big fans of Hayward’s back when we were there a lot in the 70’s and 80’s. And Lisa’s family recipe for sweet smoky KC style sauce is a real crowd-pleaser when we host barbecue parties.

      • Jim White says:

        Results aren’t out yet. I think they’re still taking submissions today, and a few of the folks I expect to dominate haven’t submitted yet.

    • it's complicated says:

      That’s what I get for not keeping my mouth closed.
      Stole it off my tongue:)

  9. BobPDX says:

    KC native here, and like you, Peterr, I spent some years living in the Bay Area and missed KC BBQ terribly. Now having lived in Portland for more years than I did in KC, it really is a treat when I get back and experience what “real” BBQ is all about. Usually I’ll hit Gates for lunch and Bryants at dinner, sometimes for days in a row, ha!
    And then, of course, my friends will all be anxious to have me check out the latest hot spot with an American Royal winner’s name on the sign, and a team of experienced restauranteurs that provided the funding. And even if these new places look slick, the line out the door is ultimately for the food, not the decor. People in KC are serious about their BBQ, and it’s not unusual for normally civil people to raise their voices in defense of their favorites.
    Thanks for the post, Peterr, can’t wait to get back again!

  10. Willis J Warren says:

    Bryant’s commits an unforgivable sin, they pre-sauce burnt ends AND pulled pork. I can’t remember which one gets the sweet heat or rich and spicey (since they were bought by another restaurant group in the 80s, there are two sauces that they use, neither is the original), but it’s not cool. Nope, no way. The Original Bryant’s sauce is god like and was made to put on pulled pork, but instead you get this low rent Gates sauce on your pulled pork. They don’t pre-sauce Brisket, for whatever reason (literally no one else in town does this pre-sauce nonsense)

      • Willis J Warren says:

        in 1982 Gary Berbiglia and Bill Rauschelbach bought the restaurant, and the widow got the rights to the sauce. Gary died in 2019, not sure what happened to his share, but his family owns a lot of liquor stores in KC.

        This is contentious stuff, but Bryant’s original sauce is weird and fantastic on pork. Putting this white people sauce on the pulled pork is a serious demerit, in my opinion.

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