Eat & Drink

True pitmasters: The Jones sisters are rare gems in man’s world

Meet the Jones sisters, rare female Kansas City pitmasters who love the art of barbecue

Sisters Mary and Deborah Jones are among the few women barbecue pitmasters in the Kansas City area. Together they work in their cramped quarters at Jones BBQ, located at 6706 Kaw Drive in Kansas City, Kan.
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Sisters Mary and Deborah Jones are among the few women barbecue pitmasters in the Kansas City area. Together they work in their cramped quarters at Jones BBQ, located at 6706 Kaw Drive in Kansas City, Kan.

As the sun comes up, Deborah Jones takes a seat on the “throne” — a faded tapestry-covered bench supported by a scrolled metal frame and decorated on each corner with scruffy tassels lightly dusted by flecks of ash.

From her perch, she watches kindling ignite in the upright smoker. Then she shoves hickory logs into the firebox to create a combustible stew she stirs occasionally with a custom-made pitchfork.

“I like that chair,” says one of Kansas City’s only female pitmasters, referring to the flea market find that was likely once part of a vanity set.

[ Part 1: Bill Chaney is a master at building barbecue pits ]

For more than three decades, the Jones sisters — Deborah and her sister Mary Jones Mosley — have devoted themselves to barbecue, working as professional pitmasters and owners of Jones Bar-B-Q. In its latest incarnation, the to-go-only spot has taken up residence in a former taco stand where customers step up to a window to place their orders.

Mary, whose family nickname is “Shorty,” calls out the order. Then Deborah, or “Little,” steps up on the firebox door and peers into the pit to ferret out the precise piece of meat required. With roasting pan in hand, Deborah pads back to the metal screen doors and into the kitchen. Together, she and Mary fix up a foam box and tie it up in a plastic grocery sack.

[ Why female pitmasters are a rarity in Kansas City and beyond ]

The outdoor smoker sits on a layer of bricks in the parking lot near Wild Woody’s Happy Foods West at 6706 Kaw Drive, in an industrial section of Kansas City, Kan., where freight trains from the tracks running parallel to Kansas 32 whistle loud enough to drown out conversations.

If a woman sitting on a throne in the middle of a parking lot tending fire isn’t enough to stop cars and trucks, the thick perfume of smoke wafting out of the smoker door serves as a word-of-nose advertisement.

“I can tell the barbecue is good by the way this place smells!” a middle-aged woman in a fluorescent yellow vest says while jumping back into a still-running car — sandwich in hand — to meet her next freight shipment.

“A lot of people think because we are women that we don’t have common sense,” Deborah says. But it’s clear her predominantly male customers — from construction and rail workers to truckers to police officers — believe in her barbecue sense.

A family affair

The Jones sisters have been around barbecue since they were old enough to stand on a milk crate and help crank out links of their family’s unwritten sausage recipe.

Their father, Leavy Jones Sr., who never made it past the seventh grade, was an electrician by day and learned the art of barbecue moonlighting at Hezekiah’s, an African-American-owned barbecue that once operated at 1805 N. 10th St. in Kansas City, Kan.

On weekends, the girls helped out at Hezekiah’s by washing dishes, wrapping sandwiches and running the cash register. But they didn’t work on weekdays because they had to get their homework done. Education was a priority: Seven of the eight Jones siblings went to college, and three brothers served in the military.

Leavy and his wife, Juanita, also sat the kids down every Sunday to talk about good manners, hygiene, sex education and the value of hard work.

“Daddy always said, ‘Nothing is free. If you ever get unemployed, you have to have other skills,’ ” Deborah recalls.

“We’ve all always worked, because nothing is free,” Mary echoes. “And if it is, you better question it.”

During college, Deborah worked summers at the Gates Bar-B-Q location down the road from Hezekiah’s. As adults, the sisters found themselves drawn back to the fire to help out their older brother Daniel, who, like their dad, worked at Hezekiah’s as a pitmaster and eventually bought the business.

Deborah was her brother’s designated backup. Soon after Daniel died, Mary joined her to run the business. They stayed on 10th Street from 1987 to 2003, then moved to 609 N. Sixth St. from 2005 to 2009. Mary began downsizing to a food cart on 12th Street for office workers and miscellaneous caterings in 2007.

Although deeply devoted to the art form, the Jones sisters have always treated barbecue as a backup: Deborah, 56, worked at the post office and Mary, 59, was a nurse. In the lull, Deborah dealt with health problems, including a heart condition that tires her easily. Mary retired to Topeka but soon got an offer to work at Reser’s Fine Foods, maker of specialty frozen foods, smoked meats and tubs of deli-style salads.

Last October, Deborah was itching to jump back into barbecue full time. She found the taco stand and, after spending most of her pit money on rewiring it to meet health and safety codes, she scrounged up an upright smoker at A-Lotta-Stuff, a thrift store a couple of hundred yards across the asphalt.

Although she is most comfortable cooking over a brick pit — Hezekiah’s had an impressive sunken pit dug into the ground — Deborah retrofitted the smoker to her specifications. “They each have their own personality,” she says. “I had to get used to the hot points and how to work the fire again.”

She put the bricks and drip pan on the right side, preferring to make her fire on the left. She also tore out the thermometers built into the door.

“They bother me,” she says.“We don’t use a thermometer. You should be able to look and know the meat is done.” In other words, a rack of ribs is done when it “flaps” but doesn’t quite fall off the bone.

Nothing fancy

The fare at Jones Bar-B-Q is not fancy: The ribs are untrimmed by today’s competition standards. The coarse-grind all-pork sausage is eyeballed for accuracy and hand-cranked and stuffed into natural casings that snap with each bite. The burnt ends are surprisingly fatty, charcoaled and chewy.

“Seasonings,” as opposed to trendy rubs, and an innate understanding of the “textures and smells” of the wood are what give the meat its down-home flavor. Their signature barbecue sauce is served liberally over the meat, unless a customer asks for it on the side.

Barbecue expert and soon-to-be American Royal Hall of Famer Ardie Davis affectionately labels the sisters’ style “old school”: “It isn’t fancy. It’s very simple and direct. The flavor is not oversmoked and (the meat) not so neatly trimmed you miss the fat.”

Unlike restaurateurs who display trophies and ribbons from competitive barbecue contests, the Jones sisters don’t have awards to show for their years in the trenches. Instead, Deborah’s prize is an intuitive sense for barbecue that borders on communion.

“Watch how focused my sister is when she turns that piece of meat,” Mary almost whispers one morning. “They’re communicating with each other. It’s accumulated knowledge. To make it as long as we have been doing this is not a joke. You have to be focused and want to do this. It’s an art. It’s hot. Time-consuming. You have to stay focused. You don’t wake up to be a pitmaster one day. This is years of hard work. You have to want this.”

The funny thing, Mary teases, is Deborah can’t be trusted to boil a hotdog.

“She does no cooking in the kitchen,” Mary says with a deep-throated laugh. “But now isn’t that funny! Take this right here — with more work and more heat — and she’s good at it. I love it, too, don’t get me wrong. But she’s obsessed with it.”

Mary also knows her way around a pit, but she is happy to be the exuberant cheerleader — taking orders, chatting up customers and making change. Her playful banter puts people at ease, and she aims to please.

“Mary is the only person I know who gets tips even when she’s not working,” Deborah says, shaking her head.

The sisters insist their success has to do with consistency and freshness. They buy their meats from Mies Wholesale Meats in North Kansas City. Deborah puts only a dozen or so rib tips, four racks of ribs and a couple of briskets and pork butts on the fire each day. If they sell out, she puts more meat on and tells the customer to come back in two hours.

“We have got a thing about freshness — and she’s got it bad,” says Mary, who helps out when she can but is no longer at the business on a daily basis. “You have to sit on the throne and play with this (fire) all day. It takes time if you want to do it right. We were never about the dollar bill. It was about pleasing the customer. That was my part, always the customer. My customers are everything to me.”

If there’s one signature item the Jones sisters continue to hang their hats on, it is their sausage. Michelle Briggs of Lenexa drives 20 minutes for some links on a sizzling July afternoon.

“It’s totally different than any other,” she says. “There’s a little spice and you can tell it’s homemade. I like the fact that when you cut it open it falls apart. You can put it on bread, or eat it as is.”

“I’m just crazy about the sausage,” echoes Gregory Ross of Kansas City, Kan. “It’s homemade, and I was raised up on it.” Although the new location “could be bigger,” he adds, “good things come in small places.”

For the love of it

In 2001, while Doug Worgul was researching his book “The Grand Barbecue” published by Kansas City Star Books, he happened to spy a hand-lettered sign for the original Jones Bar-B-Q.

“It was the jointiest joint I’ve ever been in,” says Worgul, who now works as the director of marketing for Joe’s KC. “There were a couple of folding tables like you’d find in a church fellowship hall. It was definitely the most handmade dining room you could ever imagine, but the food was good.”

Worgul dined three or four times before he introduced himself.

“He really put us on the the map, without us really knowing,” says Mary, who posed for a portrait with Deborah that closes out the book.

Worgul, who recently reconnected with Deborah after 15 years, says the sisters are the hardest working people he has ever met, and they represent an artisan approach that cannot be replicated in higher-volume barbecue restaurants.

“Our pitmasters are not pitmasters in the sense Deborah and Mary are,” Worgul says. “What our pitmasters do — which is critical to our operation — is really far less creative. Basically, they follow a procedure. It’s not mastering barbecue; it’s fulfilling that specific technique.”

Deborah’s daughter, Izora Thompson, a 22-year-old nursing student at the University of Missouri due to graduate in December, has been tapped to keep the family business going. Barbecue is definitely a family legacy she wants to continue, but she’s hoping to add a “fresh perspective.”

On her way back to college this semester, she asked her mother to make a barbecue burrito, wrapping bits of smoked sausage with beans, onions, green peppers and cheese in a tortilla. Her friends loved the results.

“I like the idea of our traditions, but I’d like to try some new flavorful dishes as well,” Izora says. “I would really like to branch out and do more with the business.”

Including bottling the barbecue sauce and figuring out a way to sell the sausage and beans at grocery stores.

“It would be nice to be in the grocery store,” Mary muses aloud, “but I guess we’re just old-fashioned, because it could never be just about the money.”

Indeed, for the Jones sisters, barbecue isn’t just a job; it is who they are.

“This is worse than a drug. It’s an addiction. It’s in your blood, and she’s really the junkie,” Mary says, eyeing her sister’s shabby-chic throne and letting out a sigh. “She breathes this, and loves it. She goes to sleep to get up for this. She doesn’t care about the money. This is her No. 1 spot.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc.

We the Pitmasters

In order to form a more perfect union of smoke and meat, we profile pitmasters — wizards of wood, smoke and fire who often work unseen in the trenches. These are the people who perfect and perpetuate Kansas City’s own unique style of barbecue. Part 2: Deborah and Mary Jones of Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kan.

Meet the Smoke Sisters

We’ve invited Deborah and Mary Jones of Jones Bar-B-Q to bring their barbecue cart to The Star’s Food Truck Friday. Look for them from 5 to 8 p.m., or until they sell out.

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