Chow Towners say, “We didn’t invent barbecue. We perfected it.”
Memphians could say the same, adding that Kansas City barbecue has Memphis roots.
Henry Perry, the father of Kansas City barbecue, was born and raised near Memphis. Whether Perry acquired pitmaster skills before he left Memphis for kitchen work in river steamboats at age 15 is unknown. When he settled in Kansas City at age 32, he had the skills, selling curbside barbecue within a year of his arrival.
Perry’s signature sauce — now a modified, milder original Arthur Bryant sauce — was spicy hot, grainy, peppery, vinegar/tomato base sour, similar to Craig’s hot barbecue sauce in DeValls Bluff, Ark., sans a citrusy finish.
History aside, how does today’s Memphis barbecue compare with Kansas City? Here’s my scorecard:
▪ Eclectic mix of barbecue styles: Kansas City wins. Memphis is pork-centric. Barbecue brisket in Memphis shows promise but lacks tender juiciness. Both cities are short on lamb and mutton. Chow Town’s Jack Stack and RJ’s offer lamb ribs. Gates has mutton.
Memphis’ Rendezvous serves lamb riblets. Several Memphis barbecue joints have Brunswick Stew. Chow Town has Q39’s white bean cassoulet and Danny Edwards’ Mexican Chili.
▪ Pork: It’s almost a tie. Memphis wins by a pig snoot.
▪ Chicken and turkey: Kansas City wins by a beak. Except for Memphis’ Cozy Corner, temporarily closed due to fire. Memphis barbecue chicken and turkey is good, but not comparable to Johnny’s Bar-B-Q smoked and deep-fried chicken, Q39’s smoked, battered and fried chicken with chipotle sauce, or SLAP’S turkey breast.
▪ Barbecue Spaghetti: Memphis wins. Born in Memphis, it’s a signature dish. On the other hand, Chow Town’s Smokey’s On the Boulevard barbecue spaghetti with meat, beans and sauce is so good that Memphians would not throw bones at it.
▪ Fried pies: Memphis wins by a Dixie mile. Fried pies are a fixture in Memphis barbecue. My favorites are at Payne’s and A&R. Get peach.
▪ Hot Tamales: Memphis wins, thanks to the Germantown Commissary, Corky’s, Gridley’s and A&R. The barbecue and hot tamales tradition reached Memphis by way of the Mississippi Delta. It hasn’t reached Chow Town. We have a wealth of great hot tamales, but no hot tamales in our barbecue establishments — yet.
▪ Creative/innovative barbecue: Kansas City wins by a chef’s toque. Memphis sticks with wet or dry pork ribs and pulled or chopped pork shoulder. Chow Town offers more variety and creative variances from tradition. Pitmaster/chefs such as Q39’s Rob Magee, Burnt End’s Stephen “Smokey” Schwartz, The Rub’s Dan Janssen, and Char Bar’s Chef Jeremy Tawney teamed with Mitch Benjamin are torching new paths to barbecue excellence.
▪ Sommelier & Cicerone service: Both cities flunk. Wines and craft beers are featured in many barbecue restaurants in both cities, but server expertise in pairing wine or beer with the menu is lacking.
▪ Complementary barbecue sauces: It’s a tie. Although Chow Town has more variety, Memphis sauces are among the best in the USA, especially with pork barbecue.
▪ Onion Rings: Memphis wins. The cheesy rings at Germantown Commissary and the classic house made rings at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue give a slight edge to Chow Town’s beloved tower of rings at Jack Stack.
▪ Barbecue boloney: Memphis wins. Rare in Chow Town, it’s a fixture in Memphis.
Bottom line: Memphis and Chow Town share a commitment to barbecue excellence. Enjoy both.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk.