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Arts & Life

For Kansas City's Prohibition-Era Drinkers, Bar Food Meant Brains

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Couresy of Missouri Valley Special Collections
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Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
A speakeasy called Red & Dutch located on 8th Street in Kansas City, Missouri was photographed for the 1935 magazine Future. The article states, "there are more night clubs per capita in Kansas City than in any other city in the United States."

It’s been almost a hundred years since Prohibition, which, ironically, were some of the booziest years in Kansas City history. And although local chef Tim Tuohy is a newcomer to the area, he’s already learning the history of that time.

Tuohy works for Tom’s Town, a new distillery in the Crossroads that makes small-batch gin, vodka and whiskey on site, and is named for the man who just might be the patron saint of KC drinkers. 

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Sylvia Maria Gross
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KCUR 89.3

“You know, Kansas City had an extremely rich beer and alcohol culture that really flourished here as a result of … Tom Pendergast,” Tuohy says.

"Boss Tom" basically ran Kansas City during the 1920s and 30s and kept it wide open for liquor and debauchery during those tee-totalling years.

When Tuohy was hired to develop a menu of small plates to compliment the spirits and art deco design of the "tasting room" at Tom’s Town, he knew he couldn’t do nachos, wings or chicken fingers. So he hit the library to find out what was served in the speakeasies and supper clubs of the day.

Prohibition-inspired appetizers

Some of what Tuohy found was familiar: smoked meats, nuts and pickled everything (which he knows something about, since he also owns Kansas City Canning Co.). He also drew inspiration from high-class joints, where big, opulent meals were served.  But he was concerned that not all of those dishes would be appealing to modern palates. 

“People loved Jell-O molds in the 1920s,” Tuohy says. “I actually tried my hand at making a few different Jell-O molds to try and keep with the idea of the times, and they ended up just being Jell-O molds.” 

He's still experimenting with gelatin, but the menu he’s ended up with includes local charcuterie, shrimp cocktail and a grilled cheese French onion sandwich (the French onion soup enters in jam form). Tuohy also developed some smoked trout cakes that, weirdly enough, emerged from attempts to make a new chicken a la king

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Sylvia Maria Gross
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KCUR 89.3

His version of beef Wellington is made as mini-shepherd’s pies, over mashed potatoes and a rue made from gravy. 

Wetting your whistle in the 1920s

Food historian Andrea Broomfield says that prohibition-era dining in Kansas City’s swanky supper clubs was probably a lot more straightforward than Tuohy's creations: pork chops or porterhouse steaks topped with mushrooms (the Kansas City Strip only became popular later.)

According to Broomfield, who has a new book out, Kansas City: A Food Biography, high-class meals opened with appetizers like blue oysters, caviar on toast or turtle soup.

But speakeasy food was another animal altogether.

“Fried brain sandwiches were what humble people ate,” Broomfield says. Bars often didn’t have food on premises, so lunch wagons would park outside and sell, in addition to cow’s brains, crawdads, tamales, pig snout sandwiches and tenderloins – “Lots of greasy food served spicy.”

Drinkers have always loved salt

Charles Ferruzza, food critic on KCUR’s Central Standard, says that saloons all the way back to the 19th century would offer free spreads to people who were drinking: pickles, ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheese. The salty fare would make the customers thirsty, and just full enough to keep drinking.

In the African American clubs between 12th and 18th streets, Broomfield says bar owners would use barbeque – just the right mix of sweet, salty and vinegary – to attract musicians after hours to come eat and start a jam session.

It was that potent mix of food, alcohol and music that gave birth to Kansas City’s most spectacular and notorious era, which bar and restaurant owners keep flirting with today.

Sylvia Maria Gross is a reporter and editor at KCUR, and senior producer of the show Central Standard. You can reach her at sylvia@kcur.org and on Twitter @pubradiosly.

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