“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

Following with my usual run of luck with air travel, my direct flight home out of Kansas City was delayed.   In the realization that I would run far past my dinner hour, I went back through security to kill some time sampling the usual run of airport cuisine and taking advantage of KCI’s civilized offering of free wifi.

Turning the curve of the terminal past the usual selection of fast food establishments, a familiar name caught my eye.

A slick sports-bar of brass and wood bore a sign that took me back to my early adulthood, and I had to do a double-take.

Arthur Bryant’s Bar-B-Q.

No way.

A sports bar?

It was sacrilege.  But sacrilege never had that kind of stomach- and heart-tugging aroma.

I left engineering school after my second unsatisfying year in a quest “to find myself.”  Or, if I had been more honest with myself at the time, so that my bohemian-artist-type boyfriend could find himself while I worked to support his personal addictions.  It seemed like the same thing at the time.  We moved to the Westport district of Kansas City, a community of starving artists and free spirits, predominately either homosexual or bi-adventurous.  It was a collection of brownstone buildings promising $100-a-month studio flats, sandwiched between the gay bathhouses, strip clubs and galleries of pre-gentrified midtown Kansas City.  It had the advantage of convenient thrift stores, flea markets, bus lines, and a Colonial Bakery complete with a day-old-bread store.  In short, it had every necessary ingredient for la vie Boheme in a ten-square-block area.  It was the most unfettered and the saddest time of my life.

We lived entirely off of my salary, first as a makeup artist and then as a coffee taster with a local roaster.  It was, literally, a lean existence.  We were the very caricature of shabby chic – lean, hungry, and oh-so-very-trendy.  The reality was not as romantic, unless the idea of slingshotting squirrels off the front porch for added dietary protein appeals to your sense of the aesthetic.

We would save for one meal “out” each week. On lean weeks, it would mean deep fried chicken gizzards from the Go-Chicken-Go just over the state line – a pound for a dollar.  I swear when they finally shut their doors, every prostitute in Kansas City, Kansas must have starved to death.  Along with a fair number of the artistic crowd.

On good weeks, it was Arthur Bryant’s.

 Bryant’s gave whole new insight into the term “hole in the wall”.  A tiny joint (restaurant was far too glamorous a term) located between the housing projects of Kansas City, Kansas, the dining room boasted a listing linoleum floor, and old tarnished chrome cafe tables.  There were three layers of bulletproof glass between you and the server, and the smell of woodsmoke and sweat permeated the place.  The menu was limited to the usual meat groups and included a “burnt ends” plate.  Sandwiches were on white bread ONLY.  The heavenly vinegary-peppery sauce was dispensed from a coffee can with an industrial paint brush, squeegee-like, between the top layer of bread and meat, and served by the largest, most well-muscled African-American man I had ever seen, wearing a white apron stained with smoke and sauce.  There was no air-conditioning in Bryant’s and you ate in the close-pressed heat of humanity.  In winter, it was heaven on earth.  In summer, well, in summer you got your brisket and ribs to go.

As a New York girl, it was my first experience with “real” barbeque, the kind worth risking a drive-by-shooting to acquire.  It was real, it was dirty, and it was sublimely addictive.  And I stood there in the airport and realized just how much I had missed it.  Oh, I have lived in the South for twenty years since my Kansas City days.  I have had the sweet, juicy, melting pulled pork of Memphis, piled high with coleslaw.  I have enjoyed spicy grilled andouille and savory boudin in Louisiana.  But for nostalgia, nothing matches the aggressive woodsy tang of Bryant’s.  My mouth watered.

The “new” Bryant’s derives questionable benefit from not being shut down once a month by the health inspectors.  Burnt ends are still on the menu, but I am not sure I can ever accept the concept of quesadillas sharing the space.  However, if I closed my eyes with a mouth full of dripping brisket sandwich, and screened out the drone of the sport-announcer on the large screen, I was back in the old building, with the woodsmoke filling my sinuses and the pepper burning the back of my throat. 

It was beyond good.

It was heaven, and just a spark of melancholy, shoved between two pieces of white bread.

November 1st, 2007 at 3:25 pm
6 Responses to “A trip through my smoky past”
  1. 1
    maggie Says:

    Mmm. Sounds divine. Even in an airport.

    Calvin Trillin wrote about Arthur Bryant’s with great affection.

  2. 2
    Kat Says:

    Great entry. Reminds me of the original Shack here in Little Rock.

    The starving is more reminiscent of my Jonesboro days… but there is little in the way of great BBQ there. However, there was Lazzari’s.

  3. 3
    OS Says:

    You have such a brilliant ability to sum it all up, no matter what the subject, scientific, mommy, or food (my favorite) and to do it in such an emotioanlly rich way. For all of our sakes, PLEASE! Write a book! This is why I have you categorized in the same place in my head as Maya Angelou. This and your bone deep goodness.

  4. 4
    Stephanie Says:

    I have to agree with OS on the book writing. You should be an author of something.

    And living in Jonesboro for 4 years of college…Lazzari’s was a treat. Mmm…

  5. 5

    What OS said. Who knew BBQ could be so riveting?

  6. 6
    Will Says:

    While the barbeque was good, this is yet another testimonial to the vast wasteland of suckatude that is modern air travel. Its been over two years since I’ve had an air-travel experience that didn’t suck.

    If it’s within a nine-hour drive, I’d rather drive. Flying saves me no time. Rather than driving my own vehicle conditioned the way I want it, and listening to my music, I sit on my ass in uncomforable airport chairs waiting for turn to ride the aluminum pathogen incubation tube.

    Will