Burnt Ends

When I moved to Kansas City with my son, Jake, in the summer of 1978, one of the first restaurants I frequented regularly for lunch was Arthur Bryant’s, the legendary barbecue place just north of 18th Street on Brooklyn Avenue.  It was located an easy drive from my place of work, teaching meteorology for the National Weather Service at 12th and Hardesty, and it presented me with tastes and aromas that had been absent my previous life.  At that time, what people in the East thought of as barbecue was little more than meat grilled for a few minutes in the backyard drowned in some sweet, sticky, ketchup-based sauce.  I had grown up in New Jersey, and was moving to KC from Maryland, so my familiarity with genuine barbecue was scant.

Driving from work, which was east northeast of Bryant’s by a few miles, the simplest route was south on Hardesty to Truman Road, and east to Brooklyn.  At that intersection, I was about 2 blocks from the restaurant, and turning, left, onto Brooklyn, meant turning into the prevailing south wind in most months but those of winter.  For my first 2 years in Kansas City, I drove an orange 1976 Honda Civic with an indifferent air conditioning system that encouraged open windows and welcomed indiscriminately both the squalid and sublime of sounds and smells from the urban core.  The perfume downwind of Bryant’s made the open window a blessing and, combined with the anticipatory long line out the door, performed the role of a kind of appetizer for lunch.

At that time, Mr. Bryant was still alive and running the house with a strict efficiency, omnipresence, and eye on the bottom line that it sometimes seemed that he lived there and that his life consisted of nothing else.  Later, I discovered all that was true, and that he lived in a small apartment  above the restaurant, had never married, and had little family to speak of, other than a niece.  Other fine barbecue joints prospered at the time: Oscar’s on Blue Highway, close to my house, Otis Boyd’s place on Prospect, and, of course, the ubiquitous shops of Ollie Gates and his relentlessly cheerful minions with their high-pitched screams of “Hi, may I help you?” battering your eardrums immediately upon entering the establishment.  To my taste, then as well as now, Bryant’s was, and is, unsurpassed.  Currently, the city seems agog over Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s, a name that ought to breed suspicion up here  anyway), with three locations on the Kansas side of the state line.  I’ve stood in line twice for their middle-of-the-road, inoffensive pork, beef, and sides, and am unlikely to do it again, even if someone else is buying.  To me, it seems as if they trade on implied safety, being comfortably away from the feared grit of the inner city location of Bryant’s, and serving up a version of barbecue that is timid and reassuring for those timid souls who want to be reassured by this Perkins of Pork.  I recall that the bleached-out bullhorn of food TV, Guy Fieri, recommended it, which certainly reassures me that my judgment concerning it is correct.

There have always been several elements about Bryant’s that I loved immediately.  The sauce was a revelation the first time I tasted it and it remains a kind of benchmark of its type: spicy, not at all sweet, somewhat of a vinegar hint in the aroma, and an earthy, gritty texture that clung to the meat despite its lack of any kind of thickening agent.  The portions have always teetered on the dangerously gargantuan, and the fries, cooked in lard during the time I am mentioning, were nothing short of ethereal.  And there was Richard France.  Well over six feet tall, lean, never absent a seeming menacing countenance nor a cleaver gripped in his right hand, sporting a goatee that seldom reminded me of Hercule Poirot, Richard France patrolled the back of the house and the pit with quiet and unquestioned authority.  As a customer, I never considered addressing him as anything but “Sir?”  And it is with Richard France that the saga of burnt ends begins.

Nowadays, every casual restaurant in the city, and likely in many other cities, offers burnt ends on its menu.  So do barbecue restaurants, even in this city.  They should all be horsewhipped and then left in a copious manure pile to perish.  They do not serve burnt ends.  They do serve chunks of beef carved from the end or outside and possessing at least one blackened side.  One blackened side does not a burnt end make.  Herein begins the lesson, and I quote from the gospel of St. Arthur.  At Bryant’s, the most popular sandwich, and rightly so, was the beef brisket.  After 12-14 hours of smoking in a pit that opens about 10 feet from where the hungry customers line up, the briskets are taken out to a butcher’s block cutting table, cut into chunks that will fit into the slicing machines, and relocated to the feeding chute of one of the two machines to be cut into sandwich-sized portions.  Eventually, the meat gets sliced down to a little nub of blackness too small to be able to contribute to the  hefty handful of meat that was thrown between two slices of Wonder bread after being painted with sauce.  Those little nubs are burnt ends, and they are the carcinogenic caviar of barbecue.  A small stainless steel tray waited beneath the chute that sent the brisket to the blade and the nubs were discarded there, within reach of those of us who finally made it close enough to lean under the window and shout out our order.  Burnt ends were not on the menu that covered the north wall at the end of the line.  Cue Richard France.

The first time I saw someone retrieve a burnt end from that tray, I was aghast.  How could he not have, instead, been treated to a bloody stub for his troubles from the fast-moving cleaver of Richard France?  But not so.  All five of his white fingers returned intact, and clutching a rare and richly smoked morsel of beef, soon to send it down his gullet.  It took me several more visits before I risked my digits for the reward I would find is the greatest in barbecue.  Richard France looked at me as disdainfully as he did anyone in that line, but his cleaver was reserved for four-legged mammals, and the burnt end both crunched and melted in my mouth that day, as it did every day I found them available. And they were free!

After Mr. Bryant died in the early 1980s, the place experienced some instability, and Richard France moved on to start his own barbecue place.  For a while, he rented out Oscar’s old place close to my house, and I went there occasionally.  Apparently, he took Mr. Bryant’s sauce recipe with him, but Richard died just a couple of years after that, and a local food consortium bought out Mr. Bryant’s niece.  They tried to keep it up to the old standards, and do a pretty good job overall, but the burnt ends are gone.  I think they are now a menu item, but they’re not the same thing I dared life and especially limb to savor in years past.  Burnt ends, like true love and moderate Republicans, remain in the lexicon, but have disappeared as an element of reality.  Just another death rattle.


Easy to Love

When Cole Porter thought up those song lyrics he wasn’t thinking of me.  I am coming to the conclusion that I am very difficult to love, and perhaps that is one of the conditions that lies at the bottom of my failed marriages and other romances for which the coroner quickly adjudged D.O.A.  Maybe they were really D.O.I. — Dead On Instigation.

These thoughts are not new to me, but they resurfaced last night during one of those eleven-sided Facebook messages that make me wonder how I wasted my time in the past.  The message seems to have begun as some sort of ungainly welcome-to-the-new-semester by a well-meaning colleague.  My contribution to the string of groans was the announcement that this is likely to be my last at the campus where I was tenured and from which I retired to begin this blog in 2013, Blue River.  A few people essayed words of regret and tried to express feelings that I was irreplaceable.  Two or three even said that they loved me.  I recognized the words, and even the sentiment of love, since I have spoken those words and felt those sentiments, but I was not convinced that it was anything more than a superficial version of love they were expressing.  I know this sounds harsh and ungrateful, and maybe it really is.  I hope not, since these are people I have valued as colleagues for 15 years and whose faces I have greeted with pleasure on each teaching day.  So why am I appearing to reject their love?

Proclamations of love seem to have the role of patriotic or religious incantations in our world today.  Like the Declaration of Independence, or memorized creeds and catechisms, they seem easy to utter, hard to live up to.  Or they seem to make possible self-righteous posturing of both types.  Love covers your ass.  You’ve said the ultimate when you’ve said that you love someone.  You can’t be one-upped, and the person you claim to love can’t raise the linguistic stakes; he or she can only call.  But this seems counterfeit to me, a verbal sleight-of-hand meant to create the illusion of emotional depth.  As the great aphorist, S.J. Lec, said, mud gives the illusion of depth, and there is no muddier phrase than “I love you.”  He only said the first half of that, by the way.  If I am questioning the love of my colleagues, what necessary conditions do I feel their expressions lack?  Well, their expressions lack nothing, but if love is more than the saying of it, what substantive ingredients can be found in love that the words do not contain.  In this analysis, I will be guided by the thought of three people whose thinking I admire: my father, Harry G. Frankfurt, and myself.

My father, Rev. W. Gordon Lowden (1915-1975), remains my greatest influence and inspiration.  And he was the most loving man I have ever known, and I aspire, imperfectly, each day, to emulate his wonderful example.  For him, love had to contain the conscious attempt to better the life of the one you love in tangible and personal ways.  So that will be the starting point for my understanding of the shape and content of love.  One way in which he loved was truly exceptional; he loved the unlovable, or at least, the ones society refused,for either rational or irrational reasons, to love.  One story the family tells, though I have no way to authenticate it, is that the KKK burned a cross on the lawn of one of his churches early in his ministry, probably before he enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy for World War II.  It would not surprise me if it did occur.  South Jersey, as it is called, is mainly south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in the early 1940s pro-white racial violence was open and unapologetic.  He preached civil rights sermons even if half the congregation wanted to walk out, and attempted to integrate every church to which he was assigned.  There was never a skin color he saw that he didn’t consider beautiful.  At the same time, because he knew a little high school Spanish, he worked among the migrant laborers of the South Jersey truck farms run for the profit of large corporations like Hunt.  Most of the workers came up from Puerto Rico for the harvest, lived in forlorn dormitories, were paid little, found only distrust or hostility in the wider community during their time off, and were discarded at the end of the harvest.  His ministry to them had no ulterior motive.  He wasn’t try to convert them, but to show them a love absent most if not all their other contacts in the Anglo world.  And in his last years in Broward County, Florida, he spent time in jails and penitentiaries, showing that he believed in redemption and feeling that love was a necessary step toward that happening.    He gave his time, his tears, what little substance he had, and eventually, himself.  He might never have said to any of them that he felt love, but his giving and sacrifice could not be mistaken for anything but that, except by the terminally dim, cold, or cynical.

I recommend Harry Frankfurt’s book “The Reasons of Love,” and I have assigned it in a class I used to teach at Blue River.  In what I write today, I only want to focus on one element Frankfurt identifies as crucial to the experience of showing of love: volition.  It is the will we marshal out of our own inner forces to act in a way that gives meaning both to our own lives and to the larger word within which we act.  In other words, both he and my father would chime in with Tina Turner that love is something more than a “second-hand emotion.”  If love only motivates you to the easy, and easily-forgotten, words of love, you’d better be Shakespeare, or work for Hallmark.  Otherwise, they deserve skepticism.

Perhaps there’s little I can bring of myself to add to what these two men have given me, but love has to be more than generic.  My buzzwords from the life of love I have sometimes tried to live are focus, priority, commitment.  Socrates famously saw teaching as an act of love, and many teachers share that orientation.  I believe myself to be among them.  My way of understanding that was by setting a list of priorities to which I referred when uncertain about an academic decision I needed to make.  The priority was to serve the most vulnerable and perishable first, and then work my way down to clients of greater strength.  My rule was: students first, discipline (in other words, philosophy) second, colleagues third, institution fourth.  I know far too many colleagues who have that order precisely reversed, pimping themselves to the institution first, and letting the students get whatever droppings remain.  These same colleagues may even claim to “love” teaching, but they only love themselves.  Loving the powerless above the powerful takes an act of will for which few have a stomach.  This is not heroic, any more than any act of love is, but it does require a rational analysis of the structure of power and the will to serve those who need serving.

A romantic entanglement of a couple years ago was with a woman who disliked sex with me because she said I was too “crazy” in bed with her.  Even taking off my rubber Richard Nixon mask didn’t help.  For her, sex was a marginally distracting activity to which she would consent when she really wanted to be doing something else.  Usually, that something else was to have my company while she went shopping with her tip money for clothing that she would return to the store the next week.  It was if she said “Sure, I’ll fuck you if you take me to Dillard’s afterward.”  For me, sex is all about focus.  Nothing in the universe exists during that time but the bed and our bodies.  Philosopher Alan Goldman has an excellent essay on this general subject, “Plain Sex.”  The phone doesn’t exist.  The doorbell doesn’t exist.  Children don’t exist.  The house being engulfed in flames doesn’t exist.  Certainly Dillard’s doesn’t exist.  It’s just us, rutting away like crazed weasels (Thank you, Peter Shaffer!).  Anything less is just shaking hands.  But for many people, that attitude toward sex, and toward life, is just plain crazy.

All of these things enter into an act that could fully be described as an act of love.  You do have to be a little crazy to love, and I’m the only crazy person I know at Blue River, so their insipid protestations are hardly credible.  Some posture and feign craziness, but if you’re not crazy enough to love when it gets you stared at, and talked about, and the dean shakes his head in dismay at the very mention of your name, then you’re just a pretender.

You can see why I’m not easy to love.  I set too tough an example, and not many people have the will to keep up.  Most just give up and walk away, sometimes only figuratively.  They don’t vacate the room, but everything else has checked out.  I’ve had marriages like that.  So did my father.  I guess it runs in the family.