Lord help me. It’s 11 p.m. on Friday, a downpour is underway, and someone offers me a pint bottle of a bluish-looking liquid. “Absinthe?” he says. I extend the empty plastic cup in my hand, the one that had until then held a slug of Templeton rye whiskey over ice, and say, “Sure, why not?”
I’m sitting on a high bar stool by an open window inside a stripped-down, 31-foot, vintage Airstream trailer. As the rain comes down, dance music is pulsing from P.A. speakers, one of which is less than 6 feet away, and it’s not quite sardineville, though upward of 15 youngish people are gyrating within inches of my perch. Outside, even more dancers keep going during the storm, first a little sprinkle, then a short but soaking rain, then a drizzle.
If it hasn’t been clear before now, the point is beginning to jell in my brain: The American Royal Barbecue, the city’s annual fall festival of smoke and animal protein, is a nonstop weekend party, enlivening and traffic-jamming a patch of the West Bottoms that essentially sleeps the rest of the year. I haven’t seen much of the barbecue weekend over the last 34 years as the cooking competition evolved into a global attraction and civic-identity smokeout. And now I am deep in the heart of it, on the second of three party nights, camped in with a team of fun-loving Kansas Citians who have deployed, along with the trailer, a half-dozen wood-fired smokers in the hopes of upping their barbecue game.
Their team moniker, the Bottom Feeders, reflects their lack of competition success in six events over the last 10 years. And the group’s illustrated logo of a passed-out-drunk catfish reflects the members’ party ethos, which, truth be told, seems to fit right in with the party spirit all over the tented, kegged acreage of the American Royal Barbecue.
Yet I know I am in a very good place, as the trailer floor bounces with dancing feet, when passers-by in the rain reach through the propped-open trailer window to shake my hand with a kind of how-cool-is-that affirmation.
Twice that night, a team of green-shirted “Party of the Year” scouts stops by. Being named Party of the Year would be a significant high point for the Bottom Feeders, especially sweet given the time eight years ago when some of the team’s leading revelers got arrested and spent a night in jail for giving lip to police when they had every American Royal right to keep their music going for a few more hours. (As the story goes, some neighboring professional competitors had complained about the noise and called in the cops, by which time American Royal officials were helpless to stop them.)
But Bobby Asher and a dozen more members of the Bottom Feeders are on a higher mission this year. After ranking typically deep in the 400s (492 out of 525 teams in the 2012 open competition), Asher and his friends vowed last spring to get serious. This year, they decided, their goal was to hit the top 100 in at least one meat competition. The Bottom Feeders would enter all nine categories — pork, brisket, ribs, chicken, sausage, plus three side dishes and a dessert — of the American Royal’s World Series of Barbecue Open. They’d compete against 534 other teams in the overall rankings and smaller numbers of teams in nonmeat categories.
To prepare, Asher and the others smoked meat all summer. They worked on technique, on dry rubs and injections, on meat trimming and temperature control. They practiced trash talk. They imagined presenting the perfect money muscle of pork — the money muscle being a prized, tender cylinder of meat at one end of the Boston cut. And now, as this early October Royal weekend gets underway, and their collective investment of upward of $3,500 fully engaged, they are confident about kicking some serious smoked butt.
I have no role in the Bottom Feeders’ effort. I’m the proverbial fly on the chicken skin, spending the better part of 72 hours in the sun, rain, darkness and smoke to get a close-up view of the Royal experience. And I swear this little taste of absinthe, that legendary spirit whose older formulations made Bohemian artists crazy, does nothing to skew my vision.Thursday: The set up
Bobby Asher is fretting. His buddy Ryan Gale was supposed to deliver the Airstream awhile ago. It’s mid-afternoon, and he has a party on the docket that night, cooking to get underway, beer kegs to ice down and tap and an elaborately crafted portal to install.
A refrigerator stands fully stocked under the kitchen area tent — “I can’t believe it only took us six years to think of bringing our own refrigerator,” Asher says — plastic drawers are filled with cooking tools, Weber smokers are queued like an impenetrable offensive line, and Asher begins to rock them into place, plumbing them with a carpenter’s level so the water pans inside won’t spill.
“I don’t want the fact that the smokers aren’t level to be the excuse that we didn’t win,” he says.
The Bottom Feeders’ space, No. 510, is near the southern tip of the Royal layout, a five-minute walk from Hale Arena, where the competition judging will take place. A chain-link fence borders the west side of the team’s double-sized asphalt patch along an industrial stretch of State Line Road.
The afternoon ebbs and flows. Mary Smith, an erstwhile team member now just helping Asher set up: “The thing about this barbecue is there’s a whole lot of waiting around for nothing.”
A train whistle pierces the afternoon quiet. Brian Danker arrives with a box of cooking tools, a super-sized box of Goldfish crackers and a meat slicer.
“That’s clean,” Asher says.
“It’s got a few spider webs on it,” Danker eplies.
Danker works for a defense contractor. His job on this team is to take the lead cooking ribs. Last year they made baby backs; this year it’s St. Louis style ribs. “It’s a meatier cut,” he says.
Asher is surveying the space, still awaiting the trailer, strategizing over the placement of a big tub that will hold beer kegs. “Everything is a Cartesian grid here,” says Asher, reflecting his background in architecture, a field he gave up for music and bartending. “It’s hard to work in a triangular space.”
Ryan Gale pulls his pickup truck toward the site, and in three or four tries backs the Airstream into place. The trailer forms a wall along the adjacent Royal artery. Asher and the team will soon erect a portal, a metal armature faced with two large wooden rings, painted in red and white stripes like a boat’s life preserver. (A sail will follow.) On the public side of the entry, the ring is emblazoned with Latin: “SS Semper Voluptarum”; on the inside is the translation: “Always for Pleasure.”
Asher says the portal will help keep down uninvited crowds. Although two of the Royal days offer events and food vendors to the general public — competing teams are prohibited from selling or handing out samples of the food to the public — much of the weekend revolves around team cooking and private or invitation-only parties. “If you don’t have friends down here,” Asher says, “there’s nothing for you.”
So tightening the perimeter is in order. Last year, with uncontrolled access to the space, they ran out of beer by Friday night. Now it seems their space is more like the Fortress of the Bottom Feeders, an insular place enveloped by music from beginning to end.
More than once over the weekend, I hear someone suggest that the American Royal Barbecue is something akin to Burning Man, that annual gathering of enlightenment seekers in the Nevada desert. Well, yes, it is a pop-up community of thousands of people, but it’s built on asphalt, not sand, and instead of half-naked mystical creatives, the American Royal appears more like Burning Man for suburbanite beer drinkers, with far fewer mind-expanding substances and much more meat. The Bottom Feeders bring a scruffy, urban edge to the proceedings, but that’s the beauty of the Royal’s big-tent community-building opportunity.
“It’s almost like a whole other city,” says team member Shelley Paul (no relation). “This is the best weekend of the year.”
With friends Fiona Danker, Brian’s wife, and Julie Wintering, Paul formed the Women’s Sausage League of Greater Kansas City, a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Bottom Feeders, and they’re preparing to enter the Royal competition with a smoked blueberry and maple sausage, formed into balls and stuffed with smoked cream cheese.
Brian Danker dips his finger in a dry rub and tastes. “It’s not too sweet,” he says, though soon he explains that for the Royal’s open competition, cooks want to skew their meats to the sweet side. “You’re making it for Joe Public,” he says, by which he means the volunteer judges of the open competition are not as fully trained as the judges for the Royal’s higher-level invitational competition, and their palates tend to be, well, middle of the road.
Smoke begins rising from one of the Webers. New Orleans music is blaring from the speakers (“Tipitina,” “Come on Baby Let the Good Times Roll”), and team member Ted Kaldis peels the fat layer from two slabs of ribs, stripes them with Plochman’s mustard, brushes the yellow stuff all over, then dusts the meat with a dry rub, which, along with the typical red seasonings, includes some brown sugar and a little wasabi.
Kaldis, an artist and part-time production worker at Boulevard Brewing Co., adjusts the smoker vents to lower the temperature. The remote gauge reads 282 degrees, and he’s aiming for 250.
A few spaces away from the Bottom Feeders, Charles D’Ablaing, chef of the swank Chaz at the Raphael Hotel, is slicing a smoked Angus strip steak and piling pieces onto a small brioche bun. He hasn’t eaten all day, he says, while running around town and back and forth to his restaurant. “I’m going to keep eating until I can’t eat any more,” he says as he bites into a slider-sized sandwich. Welcome to the American Royal.
D’Ablaing and a few fellow chefs — among them Renee Kelly (of Renee Kelly’s Harvest), Jason Wiggin (of the InterContinental hotel), Michael Foust (the Farmhouse), Carter Holton (pastry chef at the River Club) — will be cooking for the Pork and Boots benefit dinner the next night and filling a huge smoker with briskets, ribs and pork butts to make their second annual run at the open competition. Like the Bottom Feeders, who have absolutely no professional cooking credentials, D’Ablaing’s group of top-notch chefs is hoping to improve on a humbling finish in 2012.
One improvement already, D’Ablaing says: During the competition last year the temperature plunged to 21 degrees, a brutally cold day.
Scattered puffy clouds are soft and catching some pink sunset light. After stringing overhead lights from the Airstream to the fence, Asher takes a break: “My stress level is now down to about an 8.”
It feels like a party is about to happen as friends start arriving. Music — Afro-pop, R, hip-hop — continues to fill the space, colored lights rotate and flash in the entryway, smoke is streaming from the smokers and someone puts a few dozen bacon-wrapped, French-onion-dip-stuffed jalapeno peppers — dubbed “atomic buffalo turds” — on the top rack of a Weber. Asher stokes the fire pit. A jar of apple-pie moonshine starts making the rounds.
There’s something tribal about sitting outside in the semi-dark and smelling charred meat. In the chatter, someone who has just moved back here from the West Coast mentions First Friday — there’s nothing like that in San Francisco, she says. In addition to the American Royal, this particular weekend in Kansas City would hold a convergence of crowd attractions — the monthly art-gallery walk in the Crossroads, NASCAR races out west and a Sunday afternoon Chiefs away game that would be required viewing in watering holes all over, including this one.
The first taste of smoked meat comes off the grill. Kaldis slices into a slab of ribs. The rub has turned into a spicy crust over the tender meat, the ribs disappear quickly, and a huzzah of high fives erupts around the serving table. The sound of a band wafts through the air from another nearby party. Kaldis hands me a stuffed-and-wrapped jalapeno; I’m in the process of polishing off a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon — I seem to be the only wine drinker in the vicinity — and I’m about to light a cigar.
Somewhere around midnight, Asher crashes on a chaise longue inside the trailer. I head to my car to retrieve a sleeping bag, hoping to hit the sack soon. Music is still playing loudly in the space, and a dozen people are still standing around, talking about music, food and who knows what. On the way back from my car I hear a band playing Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here.” A stillness has settled in around much of this section of the Royal grounds, but pockets of partying continue well into the night.
1:52 a.m. Friday.
The music blares. A train whistle blows. I’m still awake. I start reading stuff on my phone. I think my eyes close not long after 3.Friday: Bring out the butts
The trains roll hard and frequently as dawn arrives, and the whistles and horns seem nonstop, like a rooster greeting the day. My eyes pop open. I check my email. About 7, I climb off the cot where I’d landed a few hours ago; I walk around and take some sunrise photos. There’s a cool morning breeze. Back in space No. 510, I toss out some empty beer cups and other pieces of last night’s litter. Asher seems to have disappeared, and it occurs to me, knowing that I have to move my car, that I could sneak home, take a shower and change my smoke-filled clothes.
By the time I return, Drew Rudebusch has unpacked a couple of big briskets, and Brian Danker has begun to trim the first one. There’s a little tutorial underway.
“You want to get that silver skin off of it, and all the hard fat,” Rudebusch says.
Some big chunks of oak are already smoking in one of the Webers.
Again, they’re just cooking for that night’s party. “We’re smoking a bunch of meat to feed people,” says Rudebusch. His wife would’ve joined him this weekend, but she’s pregnant and due any day now.
The music is back on the P.A., Danker dry-rubs the two briskets and puts them into the smoker.
Around the Royal complex, latecomers are setting up their tents and cookers. I spot license plates from Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, even Ontario, Canada, home of the Diva Q team, which is among 100 or so high-level barbecuers competing in the invitational. Most of the professional teams, with their corporate trucks, trailer-size smokers and other custom-made cookers, are clustered around the north end of the grounds in full view of Kemper Arena and Robert Morris’ “Bull Wall” steel sculpture.
Rudebusch takes the lid off a smoker and spritzes the slow-cooking briskets with apple juice. Ted Kaldis unpacks another one from the refrigerator and starts giving it the mustard-and-rub treatment.
Asher returns from a morning break at home and fires up another smoker. He talks to Rudebusch about how to cut a brisket so the slices fit the presentation box just right. (Asher once served as a judge in the competition, hoping to learn tricks of the trade and wondering if the system could be gamed; no way, he concluded.) There’s a running patter over cooking times and temperatures — two hours per pound for smoking, the rule of thumb goes. On the sound system, the Who: “Who Are You?”
Soon Asher is taking poblano peppers off the smoker and putting a pan with four bricks of cream cheese on the top rack. The poblanos and cream cheese will go into a creamy corn he’ll make for tonight’s party and as a competition side dish.
Asher and Ryan Gale plan to make a beer run, and the other team members take to the shade where they can find it. “It’s hot, dude,” someone says.
Gale bastes two big Boston butts with a cider-vinegar concoction. “It’s more of a Carolina thing,” he says. Danker pulls his briskets off the grill — about four hours of smoking is quite enough; beyond that, the meat can turn bitter, he says. He wraps them in foil to repel the smoke, maintain the cooking and keep the meat moist.
Shelley Paul relates a piece of grocery-store barbecue karma. When she asked for ground pork and the butcher realized she’d be cooking at the Royal, he told her she had to have the best. Sausage competitors have been known to enter off-the-shelf Jimmy Dean, but Paul and her cohorts are going all out. The butcher told her she needed Boston butt and proceeded to grind it up; he might’ve even slipped her more than she’d asked for at no extra charge.
Soon Paul and Julie Wintering are tearing sage and thyme to season the pork, and Fiona Danker is slicing jalapenos to add to her two pans of canned beans, brown sugar and other ingredients — she’ll prepare the beans today, smoke them Saturday and enter the dish Saturday afternoon in the sides competition. On the classic rock soundtrack, Lou Reed sings “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”
The VIP benefit party at Pork and Boots is underway. The menu is ambitious, and the presentation is elegant: small servings of a pulled pork with jam, a lollipop lamb chop, a smoked short rib sandwich, all served in little wooden boats. Charles D’Ablaing says he has been here off and on since 6:30 a.m.
8:30 p.m. The Bottom Feeders space is probably the only one in the American Royal complex where Snoop Dogg is blasting
over the sound system. The Friday night party has begun, and though it seems far more restrained than the legendary throwdowns of past years I’d heard about, the space is beginning to throb with people.
The wind picks up and diffused lightning flashes in the far western sky. Someone says we’re in for a storm. Asher stashes bags of charcoal in the trailer, and a few team members batten down the kitchen hatches.
The weather has receded, but not the plasma-surge of party in the Airstream.Saturday: Prep first tests
Shelley Paul returns from an official cooks meeting in Hale Arena, where she learned it was OK to put a dairy product — the smoked cream cheese — inside her team’s sausage. One more thing: Toothpicks are not allowed in the presentation box.
Asher starts up a smoker and prepares another pan of cream cheese. I light a charcoal chimney to jump-start the fire pit. As I sit by the fire, I notice the top of my writing hand has a reddish, low-burn look from Friday’s bright sun. Ted Kaldis emerges from the Airstream like a sedated wild child but turns up the energy to help Shelley Paul make breakfast. Trash trucks rumble along the Royal roadways, and a village of volunteers drives around the complex delivering water, charcoal and ice. A train whistle sounds, and soon Asher turns on the music.
I check in with Charles D’Ablaing at the Pork and Boots tent. He has been at it since 7, he says, and already has some ribs and pork butts in the smoker for eating today. Like everyone else, he and his team will start smoking the competition entries late tonight. He reports that overnight someone tried to steal the team’s generator but didn’t get very far, and police retrieved it.
Angie Sestrich, a Royal volunteer, drops by to inspect the Bottom Feeders’ meat. No precooked products allowed, so packages of fresh meat in the fridge are all she needs to see: ribs, check; chicken, check; brisket, check; pork, check. Sausage? Doesn’t matter in this competition. “Sausage is sausage,” she says. “It is what it is.”
The music is zydeco. Nick Davis arrives with a package of fresh tortillas from San Antonio in Kansas City, Kan., and proceeds to make breakfast burritos — scrambled eggs, bacon, cilantro — for the handful of crew members on site.
Asher notes how the Royal competition has stretched out in recent years. It used to be the invitational competition took place on Friday, the open on Saturday, and then folks would leave. Now the event has become a long weekend, maybe too long. Some attendees arrive as early as Wednesday, and the upshot is at least three nights of parties before Sunday afternoon, when the open teams turn in their meat entries and then start breaking down their sites.
With side dish entries due this afternoon, “I’m really concerned,” Asher says. “Where’s the rest of my team?”
At Pork and Boots, Renee Kelly is squeezing lemons into a large tub filled with water, where shallots, garlic, orange slices and bags of licorice tea are floating and infusing the liquid. Soon she immerses a large chicken in the brine. It will stay there for most of the next 24 hours. Nearby, fellow team member Jason Wiggin is dry-rubbing a pork butt. Says D’Ablaing: “I think we’re going to do real well this year.” Adds Wiggin: “Next year I’m thinking of raising my own champion pig.”
Bobby Asher’s creamed corn is on the smoker, and now he’s reading up on the chicken preparation he’s about to make. He spends nearly a half-hour skinning three dozen thighs and stacking the skins off to the side.
His parents, Bob and Marie Asher, show up to pay a visit, and he puts them to work deboning and trimming the chicken thighs, then scraping the fat off the undersides of the skins. “That makes the skin crispier,” Asher says.
Later he’ll season and trifold the thighs, then return the skin to each one. Asher’s parents are wearing red Bottom Feeders shirts from 2012. He reiterates he’s hoping to score higher than last year: “This chicken won the American Royal in 2008.”
Six small plastic cups sit on a bed of lettuce and parsley in an official white plastic foam serving box, and Asher slowly fills each one with creamed corn. The team scored poorly in presentation a year ago, so it is trying harder, and Aaron Osborne and Fiona Danker have spent the last 30 minutes or so meticulously laying down the greenery. “The box looks pretty,” Asher says.
Over the next 20 minutes, he dusts each serving cup with a bit of seasoning and lays on a thin disc of jalapeno. With the clock winding down — there’s a 10-minute entry window, from five minutes before to five after each deadline — Asher soon erupts in a little tantrum when he can’t find a spray bottle to fill with water and give the corn a sexy glisten. Crisis soon averted, he heads toward Hale Arena and turns in the team’s first entry of the weekend at 2:58 p.m.
Fiona Danker takes her pan of smoked beans off the grill and starts dishing them into six more plastic cups. Turn-in time is 20 minutes away, and she soon is sent off to a round of hopeful applause with minutes to spare.
Rudebusch trims the fat from the second of two briskets. Brian Danker puts out a foil tray of burnt ends, just out of the smoker and cut up for tasting. An influx of friends soon turns up, and party No. 3 is underway.
Aaron Osborne composes a pile of banh mi sandwiches — his tender pulled pork, pickled carrot and cilantro on a hard, French-style roll. They’re a hit. Asher puts out a test run of his chicken, and soon some sausage balls come out of the smoker for a taste.
The drinking games have begun. I am totally out of touch and unfamiliar with the format. I silently applaud my decision to forgo the beer.
Totally unannounced, flashes of fireworks paint the sky to the northwest, and the Bottom Feeders have something like a front row seat. As the pyrotechnics soar, Ted Kaldis climbs up the fence with a beer in one hand and a candle in the other and begins shouting a quasi-patriotic slogan: “We got him.” (Think Obama and the killing of Osama bin Laden.)
Floral patterns and showers of light explode in the air. Couples cuddle up to watch the display. Cameras click, and the sound system rocks. Asher and others are dancing and fist-pumping the air. Twenty minutes after the fireworks began, Journey is coming out of the speaker — “Don’t Stop Believing” — expressing an anthemic power that feels even better than the close of “The Sopranos.” Huge clouds of smoke punctuate the end of the show, then spread and dissipate in the air, leaving just the music and the party.
Aaron Osborne takes four large pork butts out of the fridge. The clock is ticking down: Meat entries start going to the judges barely 12 hours from now, and it’s time to get serious about the pork, which needs to be on the smoker longer than the other meats.
Fellowship. The team’s firewood supply has dwindled, given that the fire pit has been burning for 12 hours. Nick Davis goes on a walkabout and returns with a wagon full of wood he obtained from another group, the Rosehill Nursery folks not far down the way. Soon thereafter, Chris Shores comes to visit and pick up a promised beer. Just back in town from Dallas, Shores is cooking with his twin brother, Allan, for the first time in seven years, and he is happy to be the Bottom Feeders’ firewood benefactor. Shores is stocky, round-faced and bald, and he’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Will Sell Wife for Beer.” You know he knows how to have a good time.Sunday: Game time
I’d rolled my sleeping bag onto the Airstream floor about four hours ago. Ted Kaldis, Brian Danker, Drew Rudebusch and Aaron Osborne stayed up all night, tending to the smokers. Steely Dan is playing softly. A fire still burns in the metal pit, and a cry comes from the meat men in the kitchen: “We got ’em, dude!”
Asher joins the group in the kitchen and expresses his concern: “I don’t think the butt’s going to be done.”
Asher: “I’m winning the chicken this year.”
Danker has turned up the volume at the sound board, and when I notice the rough-around-the-edges R that I’ve heard off and on all weekend, he explains that he has a collection of classic Kansas City soul recordings from the 1960s and ’70s, mostly forgotten players such as Lee Harris and Tony Ashley, who recorded for a label called Forte (a reissue of some of its tracks was recently released). It hasn’t occurred to me until then that the KC soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment to these exercises in barbecue.
. Danker takes six slabs of ribs off the smoker and, one after the other, prepares them for the finish: He slathers them with squeezable Parkay margarine, honey and a sweet Gates sauce — I’ve never seen such a thing before — then wraps them in plastic and foil to simmer and soften for the last few hours before turn-in time. I ask him whether he’d ever do that while cooking at home. “No way,” he says.
Danker: “I just want one top-100 finish. That would do it.” An hour later, he says, “I’m feeling beat up,” then slumps into a patio chair and closes his eyes.
Asher strategizes with Osborne and Kaldis about the pork butt entry: Take the best of the four money muscles from the butts and add chunks of the richest, close-to-the-bone meat. “That’s how you win,” Asher says. “The money muscle.”
Someone turns on the television, which sits on a table outside the trailer. Chiefs pre-game action is underway.
One after another, every 30 minutes, the chicken, the ribs, the pork, the brisket and the sausage get packed up on green beds in the plastic foarm boxes, and team members march them to judging. There’s a frantic quality to the procedure, and at one point, as Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” revs up the pace from the speakers, Osborne says it feels like he’s immersed inside the end of a video game. When the Chiefs score their first touchdown of the day, Asher turns on the Arrowhead fight ditty.
Osborne paws through the pork butts, looking for anything that feels like a winner. “That’s the piece right there,” he finally says, placing it on a cutting board where Kaldis is surgically slicing a money muscle, the knife rocking slowly in his hand as he guides it through the meat.
Each box leaves the kitchen to applause and a round of high fives.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Asher says, after the brisket heads toward the judging tables, “but this is way better than last year.”Epilogue: Monday
The results are posted. Charles D’Ablaing and Renee Kelly’s Pork Boots team of professional, restaurant chefs ranks No. 517, spitting distance from the bottom of the list. One bright spot: Its baked beans come in at No. 2 out of 162 entries. Small consolation.
The Bottom Feeders do not win Party of the Year, but they do have something to cheer about. Overall, the team climbs about 100 notches to No. 391 in the contest. And although most of their entries are far back in the pack, Bobby Asher’s cream corn hits 47 (out of 137 vegetable entries), Aaron Osborne’s pork reaches No. 54 (out of 531) — a clear victory — and Fiona Danker’s baked beans come in at No. 23.
I happen to run into Julie Wintering that day, and she tells me that Drew Rudebusch is at the hospital, where his wife has just given birth to their first child — a child, he’d predicted over the weekend, who would inherit the father’s “barbecue toughness.” Of the rest of the Bottom Feeders, Wintering adds, “We’ve already started talking about next year.”