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.

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