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Food History Friday: The History of American Barbecue (Part VI)

So far, we’ve covered the basics of American barbecue, from how it was discovered by European explorers to its diversification through settlement and westward expansion. While Virginia was kind of the birthplace of American barbecue, it didn’t stay there and is rarely recognized as a center of barbecue today.

The centers of barbecue that we recognize today include the Carolinas, with their diverse exploration of barbecue pork; Texas, with its mastery over brisket and sausage; and Memphis, which has a rich history with pork, especially ribs. But, there is one region left that is so predominant its name is plastered over commercial barbecue sauces.

Kansas City barbecue as we know it today can be traced back to 1920 and a man named Henry Perry. Serving his food hot off an outdoor pit and wrapped in newspaper, his method of cooking became an instant hit in the region. Part of the reason that Kansas City was probably destined to become a major region of barbecue, though, was that it had a lot of stockyards and meat-packing centers.

The Kansas City stockyards, established in the 1870s, were a result of the movement to expand westward in the United States. With so many potential farmers and ranchers moving westward, livestock numbers were exploding. However, there was no way to slaughter the animals and get them eastward before the meat spoiled. So, instead, railroads would ship the live animals back east to be slaughtered there. The problem, though, was in numbers. To solve that problem, stockyards were built all over in order to house the animals.

Kansas City’s stockyards were pretty well-known, and the abundance of available meat made it a natural place for the practice of barbecue to take root. The region became known not just for its pork, like other places in the region, but also for beef, lamb, chicken, and even fish.

After Perry’s barbecue took off, many others began to mimic his cooking technique and creating their own recipes. Perry’s restaurant would continue to operate past his death, when a man named Arthur Bryant took over. Renaming the restaurant “Arthur Bryant’s,” he would move the restaurant down the road to a bigger place, and one that was closer to Municipal Stadium. That would make it popular with baseball fans and players, as the Kansas City Athletics played their games there.

Other legendary barbecue places popped up around the area, as well. But one of the signatures of Kansas City barbecue is one thing other regions tended to play down a bit: its sauce.

Kansas City is typically known for its thick, tomato-based sauce that often uses molasses as a sweetener. However, there are several great sauce varieties that tend to lean toward the spicy, using many of the same spices that the meat itself is rubbed down with prior to its smoking. The thick, sticky sauces, however, are a favorite, and whenever you find someone offering you barbecue sauce for your food, the KC variety is usually an option (if not the only option).

None of this is to say the Carolinas, Texas, Memphis, or Kansas City are the only style of barbecue you can find. Alabama and its white sauce barbecue are quickly becoming better known outside of the state. Along the south, there are many variations of barbecue, and those variations extend into other parts of the country. Much like America itself, the art of barbecue has become rich and diverse.