As we hone in on the 50 iconic dishes of the United States leading up to our Flavored Nation event in October, one of the toughest choices involves the state hosting the event, Missouri.

St. Louis specialties toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake are both very strong candidates for the state’s iconic dish, but Missouri barbecue, though a little tough to define, is also coming up big in our conversations and deliberations. The two places in Missouri supplying most of the heat are, of course, St. Louis and Kansas City.

“But you must never forget,” says Ian Froeb, restaurant critic of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and major barbecue fanatic, “that the two cities are immensely different, barbecue-wise.”

You can boil it down to this: Kansas City has the great traditions; St. Louis has the great contemporary ferment and discovery.

St. Louis ‘cue

“Barbecue was not king in this town a mere 10 years ago,” says Froeb. “Oh, there is a way of butchering a rack of spare ribs that is called ‘St. Louis style,’ but that’s about butchering. Many people confuse the name of the butchering for an actual barbecue preparation of ribs — but it’s an error. As of 10 years ago, there was no particular local style of barbecue ribs.”

What barbecue was there in general in St. Louis?

“Most important 10 years ago,” said Froeb, “were smaller African-American barbecue restaurants, some of which still exist. A lot of them grilled ribs and added a sweet, gloppy sauce to them. Their big dish, of course, added a lot to local eating, but didn’t really catch on outside of St. Louis — snoots, or slices of snouts and jowls, deep-fried and crisp like a potato chip.

“Also, a lot of people in St. Louis (as they did everywhere outside the Deep South) mixed up the ideas of barbecue (low, slow, indirect heat) and grilling (high direct heat). Fifteen years ago, a St. Louis dad might say, ‘Let’s barbecue some pork steak tonight’ — though he actually meant throwing it on the grill in the backyard.”

Then, according to Froeb, everything changed. The seeds of change were in a barbecue place called Super Smokers and another, 17th Street Barbecue, run by Mike Mills in nearby Illinois. These spawned a whole generation of young BBQ chefs in St. Louis.

“About 10 years ago,” Froeb said, “barbecue-challenged St. Louis absolutely caught barbecue fever.”

Anthony Paraino, director of PR for Explore St. Louis, echoes the theme.

“Today, barbecue is part of the ‘Four B’s’ for St. Louis visitors,” he told me: “Baseball, the blues, beer and barbecue. There’s incredible, creative, innovative barbecue all over town today.”

One of the major players is Mike Emerson, pitmaster at the wildly popular Pappy’s, founded in 2008 at the beginning of the barbecue surge in St. Louis.

“The St. Louis ‘style’ prior to Pappy’s,” Emerson told me, “was grilling over high heat and slathering on a tomato-based sauce. The style we introduced was more of a hybrid: Texas-style low heat, Memphis-style dry rub and finished with a Kansas City-style sauce or glaze.”

And has this come together as a St. Louis style?

“Not really,” Froeb said. “Not yet. They’re still experimenting. They’re still trying to figure it out. But I must point out that the great backyard classic of St. Louis, grilled pork steaks, has come home to roost in barbecue places. Now you can get smoked pork steak in St. Louis that’s truly barbecue.”

Emerson’s overview is that St. Louis barbecue “has evolved into using different butcher cuts, such as tri-tip, along with different proteins such as duck. It’s a very exciting time. There’s lots more experimentation, which provides endless possibilities.”

K.C.-style

When it comes to the other great city in the great state of Missouri, things are very different. Kansas City, an old, old hub of meat-packing, is a town loaded with barbecue tradition, and it’s sticking to it.

“It’s a longer tradition in Kansas City,” says Froeb. “Deeper. Developed in a more organic way.”

In Kansas City there are also multitudinous kinds of barbecue available, including ribs galore and great sliced-meat sandwiches. But one thing that makes the city stand out as a barbecue mecca is the fact that it has, over the years, developed its own specialty — burnt ends.

The name historically refers to parts of the brisket that were odd-shaped stand-outs, maybe a little burnt in the pit because they were smaller than other parts of the brisket. These parts were often very fatty as well. Pitmasters, not knowing what to do with them, would simply cut them off and give them away.

In the 1970s, famous food writer and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin wrote a paean to them:

“I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I’m in some awful over-priced restaurant in some strange town — all of my restaurant-finding techniques having failed — a blank look comes over my face. I have just realized that at that very moment someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free.”

No more! Burnt ends are now one of the most sought-after items in Kansas City barbecue, and you gots to pay for ‘em! And because the demand is so great, burnt ends are no longer exclusively the detritus of briskets destined for sandwiches. Today’s pitmaster sometimes cuts the burnt ends out of a whole brisket and makes ‘em look like true burnt ends.

“Burnt ends are difficult to get right,” Froeb said. “But when they’re right they are amazing. Like a lot of people, I call ‘em ‘meat candy.’ At a place like LC’s Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, ... the burnt ends have an incredible blackened bark on one side (maybe two sides, depending on how they’re cut). Inside, under the bark, there’s molten meat, falling apart. The duality of texture is exhilarating. And the flavor! Great char meets succulent fatty beef.”

But you have to be careful, Froeb says: “A lot of places take the ‘burnt’ part literally, which is quite unpleasant. Or, they don’t take it literally enough and leave the exterior undercooked.”

Barbecue is always a balancing act between meat, seasoning, smoke and time, and burnt ends present a good opportunity to get it just right. To round the circle, burgeoning St. Louis is now offering burnt ends, too. It is one of the best-selling items at Pappy’s.

Sauce or no sauce?

Lastly, there’s one more big, differentiating factor in the barbecue mecca that is Missouri — sauce.

Some barbecue aficionados across the country, like those in Texas, are highly disdainful of sauce. To them, the real heart of barbecue is the meat itself — smoky, tender, succulent, and the sauce covers up the achievement of the pitmaster. According to Froeb, in St. Louis once upon a time, “sweet, tomato-ey, thick-ish barbecue sauce was quite liberally applied to ribs. Then, in the recent surge, St. Louis eaters got a lot more sophisticated about barbecue, and the amount of sauce used today is far less than it used to be.”

And Kansas City sauce? Aha — now we come upon one of the great paradoxes that always pops up in the barbecue world. Sauce is important in Kansas City! Dallas food writer Dotty Griffith once told me that “Kansas City is the Byzantium of barbecue sauce,” and sure enough, once you get past the famous Kansas City sauces that are sold all over the U.S, there’s a jungle of smaller, sometimes artisanally-made sauces in K.C. Most are tomato-based, with a combo of sweet-spicy-tangy flavors. K.C. chefs don’t go crazy in applying them but have their own, judicious ways of making the best out of this tradition.

“Certainly,” says Froeb, “they use more barbecue sauce in Kansas City than they do in Memphis or Austin.”

No matter what Flavored Nation selects as its iconic Missouri dish you can be sure of one thing — if you come to the St. Louis event in October, you will be surrounded in Missouri by great barbecue options!

 

Tickets are now on sale for the Flavored Nation event. Buy now to get $10 off your ticket.

— David Rosengarten is content director for FLAVORED NATION. He has won a James Beard Award for his cookbook “It’s ALL American Food,” and another Beard Award for his newsletter, “The Rosengarten Report.” Rosengarten appeared in the first show on the Food Network, and went on to appear in approximately 2,500 Food Network shows, including his cooking show “TASTE.” A Flavored Nation event, featuring iconic dishes and the chefs and restaurants that make them from each of our 50 states, will be held Oct. 27-29 in St. Louis, Missouri. Find out more at flavorednation.com.