If you’re not from the south, as I am not, it’s not hard to lump all forms of barbecue together. Wade in a little deeper, and the regional differences emerge thick and fast. But the hub for American barbecue, according to Carolyn Wells, is Kansas City.
“Memphis invented dry ribs,” explains Wells, co-founder of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), which sanctions more than 500 barbecue competitions annually. “In Texas, mesquite or post oak is king for smoking. And in the Carolinas, which we refer to as the cradle of American barbecue, it’s all pork — the whole pig, and vinegar and peppers.”
“Kansas City is where it all comes together,” says Wells. “We owe our traditions to the rest of the barbecue world.”
In the late 1800s, Kansas City emerged as a natural melting pot for barbecue styles. Stockyards and meatpacking propelled southern migration from the Carolinas and Memphis, and they brought pork to Kansas City. The city was also a railhead, which meant cattle and barbecue traditions were imported from Texas.
But it’s Henry Perry who is credited with launching the barbecue phenomenon in Kansas City almost a century ago. Perry cooked in Mississippi River steamboat kitchens as a teenager and gradually made his way to Kansas City. He learned to smoke meats over oak and hickory wood, and by the 1920s he was cooking in an outdoor pit next to a streetcar barn, including such meats as possum, woodchuck, and raccoon, wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.
“If it moves we cook it,” jokes Wells. “Instead of being just beef or pork, we also use a fair amount of wild game.”
Before Perry passed away in 1940, he shared his smoking secrets, and ever since subsequent generations of pitmasters have developed their own unique recipes and styles. Today, Kansas City has more barbecue restaurants than any other city, per-capita. One of the most popular, Joe’s, occupies a neighborhood gas station — a line snakes out the door most days.
“We owe our tradition to the rest of the barbecue world,” explains Wells. “We’re blessed with plentiful hardwoods and fruitwoods — we use them all. We probably use more rubs in Kansas City than most places, and barbecue low and slow, with indirect heat. At the end, our finishing sauce uses a trace of molasses, and tomatoes, which gives it the burn.”
Something unique to Kansas City is burnt ends, a local speciality that happens at the point end of a brisket, which is thinner and leaner than the rest of the cut, but capped in a layer of fat. During the smoking, these fatty ends get crispy and browned, and offer their own flavor, which some liken to charred jerky.
“In the old days the pit masters would cut off those ends and offer them to people in line, to keep them happy while they were waiting,” explains Wells. She says the popularity of burnt ends outpaces the fat on the brisket, so chefs have devised other ways to prepare them, often served on white bread with sauce. “Now they’re their own thing, and they’re not really the authentic burnt ends.”
While Kansas City’s barbecue style is not specific to any type of meat, ribs remain ever-popular. They’re traditionally served with sides of dirty rice, mac and cheese, French fries or, most often, baked beans and coleslaw.
In contrast to Kansas City’s beloved barbecue standards, which emphasizes the sweet sauce, Memphis ribs have more of a kick from chili powder. The meat is prepared with a dry rub and it might not even have any sugar, while the tangy sauce on the side is thinner. Enjoy these with a portion of green bean salad.
The Carolinas are probably where barbecue traditions have their roots, thanks to the original colonists, who brought over pigs to the continent. The Campaign for Real Barbecue takes North Carolina barbecue as seriously as certain vineyards in France promote their Champagne, and says “wood smoke defines real barbecue.” Here, it’s all about the pork.
In North Carolina, barbecue swings two ways. In the Eastern part of the state, a “pig picking” involves roasting the whole hog in a smoker. The meat is so tender it’s torn off and chopped, known as pulled pork. A thin, vinegar-based sauce of seasonings, salt and pepper — but no tomato — is added, and a thick Brunswick stew of vegetables and game meat is often on the side.
West of Raleigh, pork shoulder is most commonly used, offering mostly dark meat — sliced, and typically known as Lexington-style barbecue. The sauce is still vinegar-based, but ketchup and brown sugar are added, providing a reddish hue.
In South Carolina, there are several regional variations, but in the central part of the state mustard is added to the sauce — often retailed as Carolina Gold. Common side dishes are hush puppies or collards and coleslaw, sweet and full of vinegar and mustard (and never doused with mayonnaise!).
We can’t talk about the regional varieties of barbecue without mentioning Texas, an iron-clad member of the “big four,” but dominated almost exclusively by beef.
“In Texas you’ll find a bolder flavor,” says Wells. “Our sauce in Kansas City is a bit tamer, but Texas is a big place. They might use more cumin — or the things they won’t tell you cause they’d have to kill you.”
In 2020, Wells moved into an “ambassador” role for the Kansas City Barbeque Society. She says she loves the place at the table that barbecue has earned throughout America and the world.
“One of my favorite things in life was waking up one day and realizing that barbecue was no longer second-class,” says Wells. “About 10 years ago, the gestalt moment came and barbecue was on TV and in cookbooks, and becoming more sophisticated in its flavor profiles.”
“Now we’re taking this lowly food and making it into a work of art.”
David Swanson’s writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years. He served as President of the Society of American Travel Writers in 2018-19.