BBQ Nation: “Ribs and Ritual in Kansas City”

Issue #139
June 8, 2011
By Brooke Kroeger

Read it online

Does this happen to you, too? The memory of fabled dishes from all the places I’ve lived ends up tasting better than the food itself. The one mouthwatering exception is Kansas City barbecue. Specifically, the meat the Fiorella family has been smoking since 1957, when the late Russ Fiorella sold his house and moved his wife and seven children into an apartment above a dive he called the Smokestack, “out south” at 71st and Prospect. My father owned an auto-parts store nearby and often took credit for discovering the Fiorellas and their amazing way with the hickory pit. To this day, theirs is the only Kansas City barbecue our family eats.

Dad did takeout for his staff, but as a family, we ate at the restaurant—on Prospect in the early days, and later, when we moved farther out south, at the Martin City location. Various Fiorella children and grandchildren have taken over different Smokestack locations over the years, but today, just one place named Smokestack remains, owned by Ben Eisman, Russ Fiorella’s grandson; Ben’s uncle, Russ’s son Jack, founded what is now a mini Kansas City empire known as Fiorella’s Jack Stack. To us, though they are separate companies now, they are all the Stack. No matter which place you go to, the wait is an hour. No reservations. Nobody fawns; the owners never come out to greet you. But that would never be our expectation, and it’s not the reason we keep coming back.

Time and again, we conveniently forget we’ll be too full for the next course if we start by sharing heaping plates of breaded mushrooms and onion rings, all so exquisitely deep-fried that they leave no grease on your fingertips. Then out come the slabs. We get the aromatic beef ribs—never fatty, the kind that slip off the bone at the slightest touch. I like the thinly sliced, hickory-infused brisket, as well as the brisket’s “burnt ends,” a local specialty that looks but never tastes burned. We order coleslaw, too, and those unrivaled baked beans, with their irresistible smoky scent.

Let’s talk about the sauce. Tomato-based, molasses-sweet sauce is, after all, a defining feature of Kansas City barbecue. We never add it in the restaurant, because the pitmaster applies just the right amount. But we stock up on bottles by the caseload, both the regular and the spicy versions. I simply must have it on cold sliced chicken or turkey, and I alternate indiscriminately between the two flavors.

After living abroad for years, a huge advantage of my move to New York, in 1984, was no ocean to cross to get to Kansas City. Immediately, my husband and I devised a system of barbecue special delivery: Mother or Dad with a box of frozen meat on dry ice, chilling the bearer’s lap for a two-and-a-half-hour airplane ride. That Grand Schlep happened at least once or twice a year until 2000, when Jack Stack blessedly instituted overnight shipment.
An early hardship was no succulent hickory-roasted lamb ribs—a new addition to the menu in the ’80s. But now they come too, along with medieval-scale crown prime beef short ribs, and even melt-in-your-mouth ribs of Kobe beef. These innovations we quickly embraced.
Loyalty and memory may play into our Stack devotion, but they do not account for the longing between visits. We may love the Fiorellas, but wanting—needing—their barbecue is always and only about the meat.
See the recipe for Baby Back Ribs with Sweet and Sticky Sauce »
See the recipe for Burnt Ends »
See the recipe for Smokestack’s Chicken Wings »
See the recipe for Kansas City-Style Spareribs with Barbecue Sauce »

National History Day contestants, please read this before you contact me.

The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History.  See Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.

Upcoming Events: September 23: Bentson Dean’s Lecture, College of Arts and Science, New York University. October 17: Suffragents Panel, National Archives, Washington DC.  [2020] March 27 Ephemera Society of America, 40th annual conference, Old Greenwich CT. June 4-6Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),”  Université de Lausanne (Switzerland).

Happened 2019: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles.  March 13: The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public LibraryMarch 25:Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City. August 7:  Panel, “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court.” (page 40) AEJMC, Toronto. August 14: Webinar, National Park Service.