Debates about 'authentic' Missouri BBQ shouldn't exclude the Black pitmasters who created it
Kansas City and St. Louis are both known as barbecue destinations, but recent efforts to redefine the cuisine have sidelined the very barbecuers, pitmasters and restaurateurs who made it an institution.
If you ask a Missourian — any Missourian — what our greatest contribution to the world is, the answer is barbecue. No contest.
At any given moment in St. Louis, racks of pork spare ribs are grilling next to sizzling rib tips and juicy pork steaks, while some lucky customer is trying their very first pig snoot. Across the state, Kansas City pitmasters are smoking up every other kind of meat, from tender beef brisket and succulent pieces of chicken to the city’s most iconic dish: flavorful burnt ends.
While two distinctive styles in many ways, Kansas City and St. Louis are united by one thing: an obsession with a sweet, yet tangy, tomato-based barbecue sauce.
But it gets tricky when people try to nail down what makes "authentic" barbecue.
"Defining barbecue is like catching a grease pig. I mean, as soon as you think you've got it down, there's always an exception that emerges," says Adrian Miller, James Beard Award-winning author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue."
Miller says that what we think of as Missouri barbecue today is totally different than what people were doing 200 years ago.
Up until the late 1800s, barbecuing consisted of digging a trench, filling it up with hardwood coals and cooking whole animals. It was extremely difficult work.
"And so that's really how African Americans get associated with barbecue," Miller explains. "You know, the racial etiquette for a lot of our history is, if there's a lot of work to be done for something, make Black people do it."
As a result, the first people who made barbecue in the U.S. were enslaved Native Americans, Africans and African Americans.
"African Americans are, in a way, we're one of the ingredients for the recipe for barbecue," Miller says.
Following Emancipation, it was Black “barbecue ambassadors” from places like West Tennessee who first brought the cuisine to cities like Kansas City and St. Louis.
"After the Civil War, you have recipes and descriptions of the barbecue process in newspapers," he says. "And there’s even things saying, ‘Oh yeah, you have to have a colored man do this to have authentic Southern barbecue.'"
Despite barbecue’s origins, though, pitmasters of color have been continually pushed to the sidelines as barbecue became mainstream. Fine-dining chefs have even entered the game in recent years — bringing that mentality to the cuisine.
"We now have basically various food media people and others redefining barbecue away from an African American aesthetic," he says. "There's a lot of different ways to make barbecue, but it's disturbing to me that there are these authority figures who have emerged recently, who are saying barbecue should be done 'this' way."
To see this tension play out, look no further than Kansas City’s claim to fame: burnt ends. These crispy shards of meat, cut from the point end of a smoked brisket, were first popularized by the late barbecue legend Arthur Bryant.
Miller says that in some restaurants, burnt ends have almost been “gentrified” into what he calls “Instagrammable, perfectly manicured cubes of meat.”
"Now you have a generation of diners who don't know the before-version of burnt ends," Miller says. "So they're getting introduced to burnt ends in this gentrified way. And so that's the standard for them now."
Miller thinks that for decades, Kansas City was the default style for barbecue in the United States. But in the last 20 years or so, that honor has shifted to Texas barbecue. And that's not all the Lone Star State has taken, either.
"One of the things that really irks me is that burnt ends have been claimed by Texans and it's clearly from Kansas City," he says. "I don't know how y'all let that happen!"
Historically, barbecuing was a cheap way to cook delicious food for a crowd, because of the way it was scalable and broke down tougher pieces of meat. But there’s a new emphasis these days on using higher quality (and therefore pricier) meat, such as Berkshire pigs.
Along with that, Miller takes issue with claims that "real" barbecue should be "unsauced" and only seasoned with salt and pepper.
"A lot of African Americans when they hear that, they're saying, ‘Says who?’ Because the sauce is a very important part of African American barbecue," Miller says.
That's an especially controversial idea here in Missouri, where most barbecue joints offer their own signature sauces. In fact, St. Louis is where Louis Maull claims he invented America’s first barbecue sauce in 1926. Maull's recipe is still a cult favorite there today.
When people think about St. Louis barbecue, the first thing that usually comes to mind are St. Louis-style ribs — but that's less of a defined dish, and more of a butcher's cut for pork spare ribs created by meat packers to make ribs more rectangular. At many restaurants you'll also find rib tips, the equally-delicious byproduct of St. Louis ribs.
"What's distinctive about St. Louis barbecue, I don't think has really caught on in majority culture," Miller says. "I think in Black culture, there's a stronger case for the distinctiveness of St. Louis barbecue. The one perfect example is snoots."
For the uninitiated, pig snoots are huge, bacon-like chips — crispy, crunchy and slathered in barbecue sauce.
The most famous snoots can be found at Smoki O's Bar-B-Que, which opened in 1997 just north of downtown St. Louis. Their snoots are dehydrated, not fried, which is why co-owner Otis Walker calls them one of the "healthiest" products they offer (next to turkey ribs, which, contrary to their name, are cut from a turkey's shoulder).
Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern listed the snoots at Smoki O's among his top 10 favorite barbecue dishes in the country.
"Once you get into that snoot, oh my god, you gotta have it," says Earline Walker, Smoki O's co-owner and wife of Otis. "You can get hooked on it like crack."
Like many Missourians, the Walkers followed their family into the 'cue business. Otis' family ran a barbecue restaurant back in the 1940s, where Otis' mother worked as a teen.
"As a result of her marriage, she could no longer work," Earline explains. "So what she would do was have backyard barbecues for the community."
That sense of community, as much as anything, is core to the cuisine: There are records of barbecues in Missouri where as many as 10,000 or 20,000 people showed up.
"We have to remember barbecue for the most part was celebration food," Miller says. "It was getting together with family, maybe a few friends. And then later it becomes the ultimate party food of the late 1700s and the 1800s."
It's why Adrian Miller doesn't want to kick any of these fine dining chefs out of the barbecue pit. He just wants to make it clear: Black barbecuers, pitmasters and restaurateurs created this cuisine. And their voices always need to be in the conversation.
Somewhat at Miller's urging, the American Royal in Kansas City — the largest barbecue competition in the world — created a legacy class of inductees for their Barbecue Hall of Fame to make sure these historic barbecue pioneers are also remembered.
More than seven decades after his death, Kansas City's original barbecue king, Henry Perry, was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. And next month, Arthur Bryant, one of Perry's apprentices, will be inducted as another legacy — in addition to present-day restaurateur Ollie Gates of Gates BBQ.
"My hope is that we can have a big picture look at barbecue and just say, 'Hey, look, there's plenty of room for everybody at the cookout. Let's not get caught up in what authentic barbecue is,'" Miller says.
There is one fight Miller says he’s excited to keep having: who makes the best barbecue. Because that's a Missouri institution almost as old as barbecue itself.
Support for Hungry For MOcomes from the Missouri Humanities Council.