In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and he taught the world a thing or two. Why then do I find myself in the middle of Kansas thinking that maybe ol' Chris got it wrong? I've ridden more than 30 miles since lunch and haven't turned or leaned the Heritage Softail® Classic once. Is the world, after all, flat?
Of course Columbus wasn’t wrong; I’d hate to give up a paid holiday! The world is not flat, and neither is Kansas – it rises steadily from east to west. The 100-degree temperature is just playing with my mind. I feel like I’ve been tied to an airport-restroom hand dryer. But I shouldn’t complain. I’m on a Harley, courtesy of Worth Harley-Davidson, and I’m in Kansas for barbecue.
Kansas City claims to be the World’s Barbecue Capital. It’s a title that Memphis, Texas, the Carolinas, certain Caribbean islands, nearly half of South America, and Korea (yes, Korea) might debate. But with more than 100 barbecue restaurants, Kansas has a strong case. It all started in 1907 when young Henry Perry of Tennessee got tired of working the Mississippi riverboats. He took his talents west, like many other African Americans from the South, and was soon selling smoked meats from a small alley-stand in the Garment District in Kansas City. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Nearby Lenexa is part of that history. In 1982 it held the first Great Lenexa BBQ Battle with just 12 teams. This year, nearly 200 teams are competing for what is now the official Kansas State Championship. Each team has smokers and hospitality areas where they serve samples to friends, family, and hungry, wandering motorcycle journalists. One team, Dead Last BBQ, gives me a crash course in competition while I munch tasty samples. Another team, Ribs for Her Pleasure, is a group of high-school friends that scattered to the four winds but come back every year to compete. This year they’ll finish sixth, just behind Albert’s Ash Kick’n BBQ and Four Men and a Pig. Contrary to its name, Dead Last BBQ finishes a very admirable 19th.
So what’s the secret of Kansas barbecue? I’ve got a theory, but I’ve got to hit the road to test it out.
Into the Wide Open
Kansas Barbecue Theory No. 1 – Pigs
Pigs, and not just the ribs. Happy, pink, curly-tailed, smiling pigs on logos, menus, and scattered liberally around restaurants. Poor little cartoon creatures, they clearly don’t know what’s happening in the kitchen.
A thunderstorm sweeps through Platte City, but I’m on the road before the pavement dries. It’s been a wet spring; the Missouri River is threatening to climb its banks. The land here rolls like a giant ocean wave, and the scenery is lush and green. The cool morning doesn’t last long, though; the sun hits a million watts as I approach Topeka.
After a quick stop at the state capital, I head over to Black Dog BarBQue for lunch. It’s inside Topeka Harley-Davidson, one of the few motorcycle dealers in the country with a smoker in the parking lot. The sign says, “Saturday: 11AM ’til gone.” Makes sense – barbecue takes hours to cook properly. The baby-back ribs are slathered with a sweet sauce and served on a piece of Texas toast, with a pickle and a side of potatoes. “Can I ask what the secret to good barbecue is?” I say. I get a knowing smile and a friendly reply: “You can ask, but I’m not telling.” I know what they do have – a wooden pig dressed in leathers, bandana, skullcap and sunglasses. Interesting.
After lunch I slowly roast in the saddle, the wrinkles in the land flattened by the relentless heat. The prairies turn browner with every mile. Council Grove, Cottonwood Falls, and Matfield Green punctuate the prairie. The Santa Fe Trail came through these parts, and in 1931 Knute Rockne’s plane fell from the sky here. It’s quiet, big-sky farmland. The last stretch runs alongside the railroad before heading to El Dorado.
It’s 8:30 on a Saturday night in El Dorado (pronounced Doh-RAY-doh). I was hoping to catch dinner at Oklahoma Boys BBQ, but there’s a problem. It’s closed! On the phone, owner Terry says he’ll wait for me to pick up a take-out order. I hightail it over and chat briefly about his story – 31 years in the business, featured on Live with Regis and Kelly – before I smuggle my ribs back to my hotel room. I’m glad I don’t have to share; they are divine, with sweet and vinegary dipping sauces that have some real heat. Plus, I noticed a happy pig on the sign. Coincidence? I think not.