Arts & Culture

The Hemingway barbecue connection

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Sunday, June 3, 2001 edition of The Kansas City Star

We love our icons, and we love our barbecue, and it's fabulously synergistic when our icons and our barbecue intersect. Ernest Hemingway never wrote about Kansas City barbecue. He never wrote much about Kansas City in general, despite his seven-month apprenticeship in 1917-18 as a cub reporter at The Kansas City Star.

Hemingway did once recount how he had spent much of his winter here deliberately making his way through the seven-page menu of a Chinese restaurant. That gastronomic adventure provided his introduction to sea slugs and proper chow mein.

But not a word about barbecue, although barbecue lovers can take heart in Hemingway's discovery "that there is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else. And as long as my digestion holds out I will follow romance."

At long last, we can report that documentary evidence proves that Kansas City barbecue was once on Hemingway's mind. It comes on a scrap of paper that is part of the manuscript collection of the Hemingway Archives at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

Very simply, in Hemingway's own handwriting, is the scrawl "BBQ." (We're not making this up.) Along with that is a hard-to-read address on Troost Avenue (possibly 3402), a couple of Kansas City phone numbers and a notation that reads something like "7 sandw. for 1.00."

(On the same piece of paper there are also a few handwritten sentences about suicide and the idea of philosophy in books - he was against it. But those relatively more substantial digressions are hardly worth going into here.)

The scrap probably dates from either 1928 or 1931, when Hemingway spent weeks at a time in Kansas City awaiting the births of his second and third sons. During the earlier of those stays he was working on the last sections of his great novel A Farewell to Arms. During the second, he toiled on his book about Spain and bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon.

Can it be that one of those American classics was fueled by a sauce-drenched feed of ribs and fries? That Hemingway and barbecue might have had a "damned fine time together"? To paraphrase one of the most famous last lines in literature, it's certainly pretty to think so.