57. Henry Perry (1874-1940) is considered the Father of the Kansas City style of barbecue.
“Barbecue” is one of those fluid words that can have different meanings. It can describe both foods and cooking methods. For purists, “barbecue” applies only to meats that are slow-cooked by wood smoke, typically from burning hardwoods such as hickory, pecan, and oak, or fruit woods such as apple or cherry. Smoking meats in this way produces a chemical reaction that often creates a telltale pinkish ring around the outer part of the meat that identifies it as smoked rather than roasted.
These baby-back ribs I barbecued came out with a decent smoke ring.
Barbecuing in this way will tenderize certain cuts of meats that might be too tough or lean to be appetizing, such as a brisket, ribs, or a butt. (On hogs, the “butt” is actually the upper part of the front shoulder.)
But for many, especially in the north, “barbecue” may also apply to meats such as chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs grilled outdoors over an open flame. For others, “barbecue” can also apply to oven-cooked meats flavored in a certain way. For instance, Sylvia’s Restaurant, in Harlem, is famous for its barbecued spare ribs, which are braised in vinegar at a fairly high oven temperature, and then covered in a spicy bbq-style sauce. That’s no aberration. In his new (2017) book, Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, Frederick Douglass Opie includes a 1940 Atlanta Constitution recipe for “barbecued spare ribs” cooked in a 350º oven.
In other words, for many, “barbecue” signifies above all a flavor. Obviously, barbecue potato chips haven’t been smoked over low heat for hours on end! But what is that flavor? For most Americans, it seems to be the tangy, spicy, but also sweet flavor of the tomato-based barbecue sauces associated with Kansas City style barbecue.
A sample of Kansas City barbecue sauces
Why Kansas City? That brings back to Henry Perry. In his 2001 book, The Grand Barbecue, Doug Worgul said that “Kansas City might not even be Kansas City if not for Henry Perry….If somebody other than Henry Perry had been the first to open a barbecue joint in Kansas City, God might just have gotten exasperated and decided, ‘Look, if you can’t get it right, I’ll let some other city be The Barbecue Capital of The World.'”
Henry Perry was born in 1874 near Memphis, in Shelby County, Tennessee. It is said that as a young man, he worked as a cook on the Mississippi riverboats before settling in Kansas City about 1907. BBQ historians say that he started selling barbecued meats from an alley stand in the Garment District around 1908. In 1910, he was listed as a porter in a saloon, but on his WWI draft registration, he listed himself as self-employed, running an “Eat Shop” at the corner of The Paseo and E.19th Street, in what we know as the Jazz District.
According to the 1930 Census, Henry was married twice, but apparently not during the census years, when he consistently shows up as single. Tom Nelson, whose original sources research is invaluable, suggests that, based on Social Security records, one of Henry’s wives was named Lula Ford, and they may have had four daughters.
In the 1920s, Henry moved from his E.19th location to this place at 1900 Highland Ave., just a block kitty-corner from the center of the jazz district at 18th & Vine. The odd photo, with its ID number, is a WPA Tax Assessment photo from 1940.
Henry wasn’t in town very long before he was being celebrated as “The Barbecue King,” selling a variety of barbecued meats. For his 42nd birthday, in December 1916, when his shop was at 17th & Vine, he had a party for his “friends,” a group that included three doctors, a lawyer, an undertaker, and three figures from the publishing world. That was an appropriate group for a guy that the Kansas City Sun reported to be “doing the biggest business of any Negro in Greater Kansas City.” The party menu included “roast duck, opossum with sweet potatoes, barbecued pork, mutton and ribs, Southern gumbo soup and other refreshments.”
Henry Perry was also known for his generosity. In 1920, he threw a July 4th barbecue for over 500 of the elderly and children. The Kansas City Sun reported that he served them “all the beef, pork, mutton sandwiches they could eat, watermelon, lemonade, and soda pop.” The paper noted that the meal cost Perry more than $300. That would be worth around $3600 today.
His restaurant menus included both beef and pork, as well as mutton, and game that we might write off as roadkill, including opossums, raccoons, and groundhogs, all available with his sauce, later described as “harsh and peppery” and not sweet. Henry Perry may have invented Kansas City barbecue, but he didn’t invent the prototypical KC sauce. That would come in the next generation.
Today, Kansas City may be most famous for its burnt ends, but one of the characteristics of the KC style is that it’s not tied to any particular kind of meat. The Carolinas are best known for its pulled pork. Memphis is best known for its ribs, an influence that reaches north into St. Louis and Chicago. Texas is best known for its beef brisket. But Kansas City has always barbecued everything, and that was only natural. After all, Kansas City is where cattle country and hog country meet; the place where the south, north, and west collide.
This ad appeared in the Dec. 22, 1917 Kansas City Sun
We might say that the history of barbecue goes back to whenever it was that our ancestors figured out that meat was better cooked than raw. The Spanish settlers and enslaved Africans learned a particular technique for slow smoking from the native groups in the Caribbean, as well as borrowing their word for it that became our “barbecue,” and relatively soon in the colonial period, it all wound up in America.
Our American barbecue was heavily shaped by African Americans. In part, it’s because open-pit, whole hog barbecuing is labor-intensive, and the slaveowners were quite happy to make someone else do the work. The enslaved people would have to dig the trenches, gather the firewood, and tend the meats in the hot smoke for hours on end.
Barbecue was popular in the southeast because it was well-suited to the kinds of meat that were available. Southerners tended to let their hogs forage freely in the forests, and that produced leaner, tougher pork. In any case, low and slow smoking was good for tenderizing the cheap cuts that were most accessible to African Americans, both before and after enslavement, such as briskets, ribs, and pork shoulders. The African American influence is also reflected in our modern barbecue sauces, especially in the spicier and hotter varieties.
That was the legacy that Henry Perry tapped into: cheap cuts of beef and pork, along with the backwoods critters that had sustained black families through toughest times. Perry ‘s combination of oak and hickory smoked them all.
We can’t move forward without noting that the 1920s and 30s were also the peak of the Jazz Age in Kansas City. In the same neighborhood where Perry developing Kansas City barbecue, jazz clubs were seeing the development of a Kansas City sound, with musicians like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Count Basie, whose “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a classic example. As a cultural expression, the music and the food seemed to go together.
Perry suffered a stroke in 1931 that had left him with paralysis on his left side. In 1940, after a month in the hospital, he died of pneumonia. His death certificate (freely available online) indicates that he was to be buried in Osceola, Arkansas, across the river from Memphis.
The business was passed along to one of his employees, Charlie Bryant (1892-1952). Charlie had come up from Milam County, Texas in the 1930s. According to the 1940 Census, Charlie had completed 3rd grade. Not long after that, Charlie’s younger brother, Arthur (c.1904-1982), came up for a visit, and stayed. Arthur had gone to Prairie View A&M, and could have taken a teaching position, but decided to stay in Kansas City.
Charlie kept doing things as Henry had taught him. But when Arthur took over in 1946, he made some changes. Arthur tinkered with Perry’s harsh, peppery sauce, making it sweeter.
Arthur Bryant’s became one of the nation’s iconic barbecue destinations. Harry S Truman, a native of nearby Independence, was a special fan, but Arthur also welcomed Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and other politicians and celebrities. Calvin Trillin, a Kansas City native, brought national attention to Arthur Bryant’s when he declared in a 1972 piece in Playboy magazine that Arthur Bryant’s was “the single best restaurant in the world.”
In the 1950s, Arthur moved his restaurant to 1717 Brooklyn, where it remains today.
Another one of Henry Perry’s proteges was Arthur Pinkard. The Pinkards had come north from Alabama.
After Perry’s death, Pinkard took his pitmaster skills to the Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q. In 1946, George Gates (1908-1960) bought the Ol’ Kentuck, and kept Pinkard as pitmaster. Gates was born in Memphis; his mother was born in Georgia. She had brought baby George to Kansas City by 1910, and died shortly thereafter, when she was just 22. George was then raised by his maternal grandfather, George Garner.
George and Arzelia Gates
I mention these details, because in each case–Perry, the Bryant brothers, Pinkard, and Gates–we have examples of people who were part of the Great Migration, people leaving the south for more freedom and greater opportunities in the north and west.
The Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q
When George and Arzelia’s son, Ollie Gates (b.1931), came back from college and a long stint in the army, he had lots of ideas for transforming the restaurant. George was resistant, but after his death, Ollie had a free hand, and built Gates & Son into a modern, inviting, and successful group of restaurants. Now in his 80s, he keeps right on going.
Kansas City barbecue diversified from these roots. Bryant’s and Gates’ original recipe sauces are quite different from each other. (Full disclosure: I love Gates’ sauce, and have been known to take a shot straight from the bottle). Today, the most iconic KC brand may be KC Masterpiece, which is very thick and sweet. Many KC-style sauces today come in multiple variations that are either spicier or sweeter. But generally speaking, most of the leading commercial brands found in grocery stores across the nation reflect the Kansas City approach. If “barbecue” is a flavor, and that flavor reflects Kansas City roots, then Henry Perry deserves a lot of the credit.