I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am an adopted Omahan. My roots are in Kansas City. And as a K.C. boy, nothing is closer to my heart than barbeque…or BBQ…or Bar-B-Que.
We can’t even agree on how to spell it. The word goes back to the Arawak language speakers of the Caribbean. Barbacoa was a method of slow-cooking meats over a wood fire well before we Europeans arrived, stole the word, the land, and everything else that wasn’t nailed down—though it must be noted, prior to the conquistadores wading ashore, the indigenous people rarely felt the need to nail anything down.
The barbacoa cooking method spread and mutated across the New World over the years. It became part of the culture for the less well off. Rich people got the prime cuts, the rest of us were left with the ribs and brisket, any pig we could catch in the woods, or the chicken that wasn’t laying enough eggs to justify feeding it any longer. It is the secret to making cheap, tough cuts of meat into delectable delights.
Growing up in K.C., it was a tradition to go to Arthur Bryant’s at 17th Street and Brooklyn Avenue right down the street from Municipal Stadium, home of the Kansas City Athletics and former home of Satchel Paige’s K.C. Monarchs. At Arthur’s you could munch on burnt ends while you waited for your order and your frosted mug of beer. The stadium is gone but Arthur Bryant’s is still there, the Sistine Chapel of barbecue. That’s where I worshiped—and developed the attitude that anyone who preferred the rival Gates Bar-B-Q was a heretic.
Lots of men think they are masters of their own barbecue secrets. Let’s make one thing clear, if you fire up the grill to 1200 degrees F and toss on a steak, you are not barbecuing. You are grilling. Now, grilling requires some skill, but comparing it to real barbecue is like comparing chainsaw sculpting to Michelangelo’s Pieta. And another thing, if you have a gas grill, please back up. Gas grills are a mark of shame. That’s why they come with tarps to cover them. Gas grills are an abomination. Leviticus 1:7 tells us so. Gas grills are for cooking, not grilling, and certainly not for the sacred ritual of barbecue. Get thee gone. True practitioners use fire and wood. Slow is the name of the game. We tend our fires in World War II surplus wing tanks, discarded cast iron boilers, or old Studebaker fenders. We do not use pellets. We use real wood chips and we soak them in secret concoctions. We have our own individual spice rubs. We laugh at your Webers. We are the backyard barbecue sensei.
When we are not practicing our own alchemy we are always on the hunt for great barbecue establishments. We are culinary explorers, willing to go anywhere to find the elusive perfect barbecue. When I got here, Omaha was home to one place that did it right. Skeet Whiteside opened Skeet’s back in the ’50s and it is still there on north 24th Street, with its combination of Virginia-style apple cider vinegar and K.C. hickory smoke. I found it comfort food of the highest order when I first arrived in town, though it took a little while for my Kansas City palate to acclimatize to the vinegar style. Any place loved by Preston Love, Redd Fox, and Johnny Carson has to be appreciated.
Other places have come and gone, but most broke one or two of the rules for being a great barbecue joint: 1—It should have only one location. If you franchise it, sorry, but no. 2—The food must be based on a family recipe, started by a family member, run by a family member, and the fire tended by a family member. 3—It must have limited seating and parking. 4—Everything should be sold a la carte, no combos. 5—It needs funky signage. No fancy logos allowed. 6—Smoke. The place has to smoke its meats. No chimney smoke, no go. 7—Napkins, lots of napkins.
Break any of these rules and I’m driving by.
There is one other barbecue place in Omaha I love. It holds to all the rules as stated. But I’ll keep it to myself. As it is, I’ve got to get there early on a Friday or Saturday night before the ribs are sold out. I don’t want any more competition than I’ve already got.
Pass me another napkin.
Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.
Watch his reading of the column with animation by Joe Pankowski here.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.