Henry Perry and Arthur Bryant: The Men Who Made Kansas City Barbecue Central
August 23, 2011
I lived in the Northwest for about 10 years, and let me tell you this: I missed my hometown KC barbecue. I'm not saying that the Northwest didn't have some wonderful food, but they just didn't do barbecue up to my discriminating KC standards. This Saturday, August 27th at the Grandview Branch, we will showcase our local barbecue traditions by holding the first annual Ribs by the Book BBQ Competition.
How did Kansas City get to be a center of barbecue greatness? Well, let's take a look at the history of barbecue. The word barbecue probably comes from the Spanish barbacoa, from the name they gave to the Caribbean natives' method of slow cooking meat on a rack with indirect heat and smoke. Cultures all over the world have similar techniques, but barbecue as we know it is a product of the American South.
It is likely that African slaves brought the barbacoa technique from the West Indies to the American South, where it became one of the staples of Southern cuisine. In the Old South, hogs were often left to fend for themselves in woodlots until slaughter time. As a result, their meat was much leaner and tougher than modern pork. Slow-cooking with low indirect heat made the tough stringy meat much more palatable.
As time passed, regional differences began to emerge. Texans applied the barbecue technique to their beloved beef and added in elements of Mexican cuisine. Louisiana's diverse mix of French, Spanish, African, Cajun and Creole peoples brought cayenne pepper, garlic, olive oil and sausages into the barbeque fold. Distinctive regional side dishes, spice rubs, and barbecue sauces added to the variety. As African-Americans moved out of the old South, they took the barbecue tradition with them.
We can thank one such man for making Kansas City one of the stops on an American barbecue pilgrimage. Born in 1875 near Memphis, Tennessee, Henry Perry worked as a steamboat cook until settling in Kansas City. In the early 1900s, Perry began serving barbecue in the Quality Hill area, and later the 18th & Vine neighborhood, soon to become a major center of the Jazz Age. Perry died in 1940, leaving the successful business to employee Charlie Bryant.
If that name sounds familiar, it's because he soon sold the business to his brother, Arthur Bryant. Bryant tweaked Perry's original sauce to make his now famous recipe, and the rest is history. The restaurant bearing that name has become one of the world's greatest barbecue restaurants.
Calvin Trillin once called Arthur Bryant's BBQ "the single best restaurant in the world." Eating at the original Arthur Bryant's BBQ should be on everyone's "bucket list." But, we have more than just one great barbecue restaurant here: we also have Gates & Sons, Fiorella's Jack Stack, Oklahoma Joe's, Danny Edwards Blvd. BBQ, and many others. We also have legions of dedicated home barbecuers, including the inventors of the Internet favorite Bacon Explosion.
So thank you, Mssrs. Bryant and Perry. I'll be thinking of you while I sink my teeth into some succulent barbecued ribs this Saturday.
Photo Credit: Flickr user bk1bennett via Flickr's Creative Commons.barbecue