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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Barbecue vs. Riots

You're not yourself when you're hangry.

With the warm weather seemingly hitting us in the South for good, protest season is upon us – there was a leisurely anti-Trump protest across the street the other day already – and riots, as we’ve seen recently, are unfortunately not off the table. But there are few that actually do anything besides disrupt traffic (I’m looking at you, “One Woman Riot” sign lady taking selfies), so why not do something that makes a difference instead? Like, eat?

The warm weather is also making cookouts a viable weekend option again. I lived in and around Kansas City for about five years, so I’m basically a certified expert on barbecue, and I can promise there’s no barbecue like what’s made in Kansas City. Especially the one that not only smokes the most tender pork ribs I’ve ever had, but also did more tangible good for civil rights than any riot – Arthur Bryant’s.

Started Local, Stayed Local

The restaurant was actually founded in 1908 by Henry Perry, who’s generally considered to be the father of Kansas City barbecue. Arthur Bryant’s has never been fancy, but it first started as a food stand in an alley as Perry sold smoked meats to those working in the Garment District of downtown. Eventually he moved into an old trolley barn in what would become Kansas City’s Jazz District, just down the street from the eventually famous corner of 18th and Vine.

When Perry died in 1940, his employee Charlie Bryant took over the restaurant and eventually sold it to his brother Arthur. Arthur kept it up in its old spot until 1958, when he moved it to its present location, still by the Jazz District, on Brooklyn.

Bryant passed away in 1982, but the restaurant is still in the family and looks the same as it did when it moved almost 60 years ago. There’s only one other location, at the Kansas Speedway, but their sauces are sold online now (they’re so worth it).

Feeding the Cultural Divide

Arthur Bryant’s area was and still is a center for black history: the famous jazz musician Charlie Parker got his start there; one of the six weekly African-American newspapers, The Call, was started there in 1919 and still operates there; KC’s African-American division of the American Federation of Musicians has been in the neighborhood since 1917; the American Jazz Museum featuring greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is there; and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is down the street.

Arthur Bryant’s managed to make it through the tumultuous civil rights era unscathed. It was famous enough that it drew its crowds from all races even when it was still highly unusual to do so. But hungry people are hungry people, and good barbecue is good barbecue. Municipal Stadium, which alternately hosted the Kansas City Athletics, Chiefs, and Royals, was only a few blocks away, and brought fans to Arthur Bryant’s regardless of their race. The walls of the restaurant are covered in pictures of grinning political and entertainment celebrities, from President Truman to Harrison Ford, getting barbecue sauce on their faces and shaking Bryant’s hand, all at a time when riots broke out across the nation.

I’m a huge believer in the power of food beyond simply keeping people alive. People are generally willing to suspend their grudges and prejudices if it means they get to eat. If the people come together as friends already or at least indifferent, food will bring them closer.

The last time I tried to go to Arthur Bryant’s, it was around 2pm on a weekend and the line was two blocks long. One hundred years after the alley stand’s popularity forced the restaurant out of a barn and into a proper building, nothing’s changed.

So if you’re feeling called to take a stand on a political issue, do it productively. Don’t riot, don’t whine, don’t waste time and energy being angry. Find restaurateurs who support the same cause you do, and eat their food. You’ll both be happy.