Kansas City Confidential
By Thane Peterson
If you're thinking of taking a quick two- or three-day trip this summer, I heartily recommend Kansas City, Mo. Museums and historical sites abound, but your itinerary should be organized around meals -- each preferably followed by a walk and a nap.
That's how we did it earlier this year when I visited Kansas City with my 76-year-old mother, Helen Peterson, and Eric Schneider, a Chicago jazz musician who has toured with Count Basie and Earl Hines. "The best restaurants of the world are, of course, in Kansas City," the writer and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin once wrote, adding, "Not all of them; only the top four or five." Trillin identified the classics years ago: Arthur Bryant's for barbecue, Stroud's for fried chicken, and Winstead's for hamburgers.
Unless you have more than a few days, opt for barbecue. As Doug Worgul, author of The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue (starbookspreview), puts it in an assertion that could get him into fistfights from Tennessee to Texas: "We're the barbecue capital of the world. We didn't invent it, but we did perfect it." Schneider, a trim 48-year-old, once ate back-to-back meals at Bryant's and its main rival, Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q. He narrowly prefers Gates, which has six outlets -- and I, too, think back on my slab of Gates ribs washed down with beaded glasses of ice-cold Budweiser with deep reverence.
PLATES ARE LOADED.
In the end, however, I come down with Trillin on the side of Bryant's -- a drab storefront eatery in the once legendary jazz quarter centered around 18th and Vine. One anecdote pretty much says it all: After dining at Bryant's, then President Jimmy Carter walked away with a carryout bag in hand because "he wasn't about to trust the Secret Service guys with it," Worgul says.
You line up at the counter with people of all races, ages, and sizes (many of them plus sizes), and as you move along a cafeteria-style railing, plates of ribs and fries, side dishes, soft drinks, and numerous slices of white Butternut bread are added to your tray. Over the counterman's shoulder, you can see shelves of slow-cooking beef and pork, juices dripping into the pit. Bryant's sauce has an undertone of cayenne that gives it its characteristic bite. You eat at Formica tables with stacks of napkins close at hand.
Most writers remark on the bottles of Bryant's sauce curing in the windows. But the element of its decor that struck me most was a framed, decades-old cover of a hog-farmer's magazine featuring a photo of the aptly-named Woodrow Bacon, Bryant's legendary pit master. Bacon started at Bryant's as a teenager and has been there 60-odd years. He still comes in part-time, Worgul says. Bless him, I say.
Before moving on to other landmarks, I must caution that some experts -- notably the famous political reporter and gourmet R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., of The New York Times -- challenge Trillin's authority in the matter of Kansas City cuisine. Indeed, when I asked Trillin for an update on the barbecue scene, he graciously admitted to being a bit out-of-date and referred me to Worgul -- who says newer restaurants such as Oklahoma Joe's and 'Lil Jake's rank right up there with Bryant's and Gate's these days.
Trillin, who lives in New York, is less gracious when it comes to Apple, whom he referred to (somewhat disparagingly, I thought) as "Charlie Plum." "Don't worry. I'm used to being insulted by Plum," he said. Even Apple considers Bryant's one of the world's top restaurants, but Trillin sputtered at the Timesman's assertion that Swenson's in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, makes better burgers than Winstead's. "Akron? Jesus!" Trillin said, adding: "But I'm not an expert on anything -- except not eating in Akron."
Lunch at Arthur Bryant's should be followed by a stroll up the block to side-by-side museums: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Kansas City Jazz Museum. The photos and memorabilia at the Negro Leagues museum are fascinating reminders of the era when blacks and whites lived in parallel universes separated by a wall of white racism.
THE MELODY LINGERS.
Baseball games were tremendous social events in African-American society back then, and people attended dressed absolutely to the nines. My mother, who is white like me and grew up in rural Kansas, was thrilled when she noticed that one elegant spectator in an old photograph of a Kansas City Monarchs game was wearing exactly the same type of shoes on which she once blew her entire clothing budget during a trip to the city as a teenager.
The jazz museum is a bit hard to follow, though it's fun to listen to snippets of music from greats like Lester Young and Ella Fitzgerald. The dozens of jazz clubs once clustered around 18th and Vine are long gone, but there is a club connected to the museum.
If you want to hear jazz in more authentic surroundings, Chuck Haddix, director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, suggests the nearby Mutual Musicians Foundation at 1823 Highland, where an all-night jam session starts every Saturday around midnight. Other top jazz spots include Jardines Restaurant & Jazz Club and The Club at Plaza III.
A no less crucial cultural stop in Kansas City is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has a marvelous permanent collection that includes everything from works by Claude Monet and Georgia O'Keefe to native American art to one of the nation's finest collections of Chinese artifacts. Another place that's supposed to be fascinating, though we didn't make it there, is the Harry Truman Library & Museum, just east of Kansas City in Independence.
If you head out to Independence, I'd like to suggest a side trip -- one that was actually the main purpose of our visit. Heading east on Truman Rd., and just outside Kansas City, you'll come to the historically all-black Lincoln Cemetery. Though there are no signs, and no one at our hotel could tell us how to get there, Lincoln Cemetery is where the great jazz sax player Charlie Parker is buried. My late father led a family expedition there in the late '70s and failed to find Parker's grave. We wanted to complete the mission.
Listen up, because this information is hard to come by: There's no left turn off of Truman Rd., so keep going east through the big stone arches then turn around somewhere and double back to the arches. Turn north on Blue Ridge Blvd., the road separating Lincoln Cemetery from its historically all-white counterpart, go 200 yards or so and turn left though the chain-link fence into the cemetery. Then go about 300 yards on the gravel road, bearing to the right.
A few yards off the road to the right you'll find two black marble markers -- one for Parker, who died in 1955, and the other for his mother Addie, who died in 1967. It's a peaceful spot, and it's important to honor the memory of great artists. It's also instructive to recall that fewer than 50 years ago even Charlie Parker couldn't have been buried across the road.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Beth Belton