Michael Stern was born in Chicago. I was born in midtown Manhattan. When we first traveled west from our Connecticut home, Michael could not stop talking about the great BBQ we soon would eat.
Decades back American regional food was just that: regional. No one thought to eat Cajun food in Iowa or Pennsylvania Dutch in Maine. So if you have forgiveness in your heart, please excuse the fact that after traveling 900 miles West I was expecting a big plate of Chinese spareribs. That was the only BBQ I knew about – the kind you got after the egg drop soup and before the Sub Gum.
Now, BBQ is everywhere. Within five miles of my house in Connecticut I can tell you were to go for brisket, ribs, burnt ends, or pulled pork; and I can tell you who serves South Carolina style mustard sauce, Kansas City red sauce, or nothing but clear drippings (as they like it in Texas).
When Michael and I hit the road we wandered aimlessly following our noses to see if a good wood fired pit BBQ might be nearby. It may sound silly, but no one wrote about regional American food back then, so we had no tips or hints of where to go. Actually that is not entirely true. Shortly before we started our quest, Calvin Trillin published a wonderful book called “Alice Let’s Eat”. It was not a guidebook, but reminiscences of food he ate growing up in Kansas City.
Of the places he wrote about, he was most lauditory about Arthur Bryant’s. It was a BBQ place, more specifically THE BBQ place. So we went.
If it appeared in this day and age on the radar as the best of the best, the holy of holies, Arthur Bryant’s would likely be franchised. It would be a decent but soulless chain like Five Guys or McCormick & Schmicks. How lucky we were that it was still pristine and non-commercial when we got there.
In that regard, the strangest thing about our early visits to Arthur Bryant’s was that there was no long line of people waiting to get in. In today’s pop foodie media, anything good is trendy, and anything trendy has lines around the block. Witness the rather repulsive fad item the New York City Cronut. People stood for hours in the sun and snow to try one. It was, for a brief moment in time, on everybody’s bucket list.
I am incuding some photos of our first trip to Arthur Bryant’s. You will see the minimalist window display in the storefront. It is an old fashioned green plant like the kind they once sold at Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent stores along with a big jug of his famous cinnabar red BBQ sauce.
The next picture is of Mr. Bryant on the phone taking an order. He is wearing a jaunty straw hat, cigar in his shirt pocket. The man standing behind him is cooking the exceptional French fries.
As we do whenever researching Roadfood, we ordered nearly everything on the menu. The most memorable item was a sandwich. It could not have been more elemental…two pieces of supermarket white bread, BBQ meat, and the celestial red orange sauce. The sandwich was presented with a memorable flourish. Whoever made it (possibly Mr. Bryant when he got off the phone) had squished the sandwich flat with his open hand. Like the shroud of Turin the white bread clearly showed the hand’s ghostly image.
It is not blind nostalgia to say that Arthur Bryant was the best of Kansas Cities BBQ places. The sauce alone has never been matched. It is unique in every way: the color, the slightly coarse texture, and the perfumy odor that transcended whatever went into the saucepot.
The third photo is of two locals in front of the restaurant. As you can see, the place was still undiscovered. There was no “World Famous” sign in front, no picture of Guy Fieri mugging with the owner.
People have often wondered what would happen if the Sterns and Calvin Trillin ever met. Well, we did once, at a lunch place in San Diego. He was already at the counter eating. He looked at us, we looked at him and we both averted our eyes. Writers are weird and introverted. We never thanked him for leading us to Arthur Bryant’s but we should have.