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 locked in a room with a 75-year-old man from the heart of Texas and a home-schooled 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, Mo., at Arthur Bryant's. 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, in some strip-mall joint on the way from the airport.
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. 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 with 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.
Of course, in all the hoo-ha about finally tasting Kansas City barbecue, I was in danger of forgetting my whole reason for getting there in the first place: the World Championship of Canning, sponsored by Grit magazine. I had sent away for a sample issue and received the one in which they were promoting the championship and soliciting essay entries. Three winning essayists would be flown, all expenses paid, for three days in Topeka, where the magazine's headquarters are located. There the winners would act as the judging panel for the canning contest.
My mind, it makes great leaps sometimes. I saw the word Kansas, flashed onto Calvin Trillin's effusions on the subject of Kansas City barbecue, and entered the contest without thinking twice. Three months later I found myself sitting at a table with 57 assorted jars of preserved foods. With me were the other winners, the dignified old man from Texas who had canned food with his late wife; and the girl from Ohio who made her own goat cheese from her herd of goats and was so into historical re-creation that she wore a mob cap and looked as though she shouldn't have even believed in airplanes, let alone boarded one and taken the flight in Kansas.
Together we rivaled any food reviewer in the country for focus, finickiness and overall attitude. We sucked air and smacked our lips and took vicious pleasure in ripping to shreds the truly horrid entries, the absurd bread-and-butter pickled jalapeños that weren't even hot (what's the point?), the fruit cocktail with the twice-cooked peach segments (buy a can and save yourself the trouble), the jellies that quivered in pallid pools of their own perspiration (like ladies, truly refined jellies don't sweat). We shared outrage at the entries that included canned items in the recipes — tomato soup in the vegetable soup, cranberry sauce in the black-pepper cranberry salsa.
We had our differences, but they weren't the ones I expected. The faux Amish girl had a peculiar taste for items that had been flavored with Cinnamon Red-Hots, which I felt that she, if anyone, should recognize as an abomination unto the Lord. The Texas gentleman was taciturn but firm on the subject of the otherwise outstanding blackberry jam whose prominent seeds knocked it out of the running, in his polite opinion. I fought in vain for recognition of the nuances in the summer pears, a carefully arranged jar of creamy-white pears that had been touched with a whiff of almond extract. They turned out to be too subtle by half for my companions — "They're kind of quirky," said the girl diplomatically, while the Texan grunted something about them being "too soft."
Now, I could have taken those comments personally, as some kind of comment on my citified ways, but in the interest of furthering cross-cultural communications, I subsided and let the cinnamon red-hot pears win in the fruit category.
Hey, I'd had my barbecue. My duty here was done. ©