It’s not uncommon for people to patronize their favorite restaurants on a trip back to their hometown; it just so happens that for me, all of my favorite restaurants are of the barbecue variety. I can’t say this is anything but customary for those from Kansas City, a place where barbecue is so rooted in the city’s tradition that their Major League Baseball team is named after a century-old livestock show. I’m talking about a metropolitan area with over 100 barbecue restaurants, despite a population that barely surpasses 2 million residents. In Kansas City, barbecue is much more than a commodity, it’s a currency, and burnt ends are the town’s succulent prized jewel.
Now, you can’t talk about burnt ends without talking about the history of Kansas City barbecue, and you can’t talk about the history of Kansas City barbecue without first mentioning Henry Perry.
Like many African-Americans living in the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century, Henry Perry was a southern transplant, reigning from Shelby County, Tennessee. A former steamboat restaurant worker, Perry found himself in Kansas City, where he progressed from selling smoked meats out of an alley cart to owning the first full-blown barbecue restaurant in town.
Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q, two of the city’s most long-standing and influential barbecue staples, can both trace their origins to Perry and that first restaurant, but his influence certainly doesn’t end there. From Jack Stack and Joe’s, to L.C.’s and Slap’s (to Q39 and B.B.’s Lawnside and Char Bar and Smokehouse and hundreds of other delicious establishments) every piece of smoked meat served in town will forever serve as tribute to Perry and the impact he and his restaurant had on the birth of barbecue in Kansas City.
Popularity and tradition aside, the region’s approach to barbecue is complex, and much like the city’s dual-state geography, Kansas City’s style can be difficult to explain to outsiders. Terms like “eclectic” and “comprehensive” are often thrown around to describe a tradition that draws influence from, and has similarities to, numerous other barbecue regions and their techniques.
Kansas City barbecue is a meat-first, sauce-heavy, spice melody, “low and slow” approach to smoked meat indulgence. Sides aren’t typically the focus, but pickles and a slice of white bread are routinely provided. Sauce, a regional staple, is often misunderstood as simply being sweet and thick, when there’s a range of variations throughout town. Hickory and oak are traditionally chosen for the smoking process, but wood type can vary as well. And, what’s the meat of choice? Any meat (or fruit) that you can get your hands on! Unlike other major barbecue regions, anything goes in Kansas City, which is the exact broad-minded type of inventiveness that led to the creation of the city’s prized delicacy: burnt ends.
Burnt ends are exactly what they sound like, crispy charred ends from one of the two sections of beef brisket. Deriving from the fattier “point” region of brisket, the cut is cooked for an extensive amount of time in order to break down the high cartilage and inter-muscular fat content. This method creates an extra crunchy bark along the surface of the meat, accompanied by the juiciest and most-tender interior imaginable.
Traditionally cubed but sometimes chopped, burnt ends are customarily served as an open-faced sandwich piled so high you’ll be forced to eat the first half with a fork. However, as barbecue in Kansas City has continuously expanded and evolved, burnt ends are now incorporated in every manner and form imaginable. From tacos and burgers to hash, they’ve proven to be ubiquitous and versatile in their deliciousness.
Despite their demand, burnt ends are hard to come by. They’re derived from such a small portion of a single cut of beef, there’s only a scant amount per cow, causing restaurants to run out of them on a daily basis. This is probably why they’re somewhat rare outside of Kansas City. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve felt the utter disappointment of scanning a barbecue menu in another town, only to see burnt ends omitted entirely. Unlike pizza or other popular food categories, there is such a thing as bad barbecue, and if burnt ends are the pinnacle, it’s easy to be disappointed.
Equal parts adored, delectable, and limited, burnt ends are now undoubtedly a barbecue prize, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, if it wasn’t for food writer Calvin Trillin, there’s an argument to be made that they’d never have been more than scraps or samples.
For years, burnt ends were simply the charred chunks given out to hungry customers in line at one of the city’s most notable barbecue joints, Arthur Bryant’s. That’s until Trillin wrote a Playboy article in 1972 declaring Arthur Bryant’s the “single best restaurant in the world,” going on to gush about their free “burnt edges” being the best thing at the establishment. Curiosity caught on, demand increased, and those scraps soon found themselves on menus all across town.
Of course, I’d be an idiot to sit here and write about any one cut of meat or single regional style of barbecue being the best in existence. However, there’s something special about the way a few celebrated pieces of meat can rightfully epitomize a town and its inhabitants.
Kansas City—where I’m from—is a place unlike any other, a Midwestern city that’s too Southern for the region, but too Northern to be claimed by the South. It’s a cultural hotchpotch mixed with a stubbornness that is distinctly its own, with citizens who are rightfully proud of this fact. Much like Kansas City, burnt ends showcase something premium that comes from ingenuity. They demonstrate a history of hard-working people who have elevated their trade to new heights. There’s something Midwestern about a scrap of meat becoming a sought-after delicacy in one of the country’s most notable barbecue powerhouses, and there’s something quite rich about it taking place in a border city shared by two of this nation’s forgotten flyover states.