Burnt Ends: The Fast History of Low and Slow Life
I came to food in a serious way rather late in life, already an adult, already in the process of traveling the world.
Living in Europe the first of two times hooked me into food as a blooming personal passion above just daily sustenance and something to be sought out when you crave certain things not available at a drive-thru window. Though surrounded by food growing up, and in a family and culture in which food was predominant, I never really bothered to learn to make it myself. That changed when I left the mountains of my origin and the familiar serving tables of Up Yonder and the regular rotation of food by my mother and the other cooks in my family. It gave way to an expanded world in which food needs to be sought out and explored further. From Texas to Germany, the Middle East to Las Vegas, from Southeast Asia to the Southeast of America, there are some things you only get to eat after finding them on life’s journey. Since those adventures are far flung and usually fleeting, the only way to revisit that experience is to start making those foods yourself.
Thus, time to learn to cook. Having an addictive personality needing to be channeled from not-good-things to something more productive to obsess over, food and my mostly-controllable craziness fit together like peas and carrots. Once you get into cooking, everything you eat, see, hear about, or even think of becomes its own quest. Everywhere you go is a learning experience for what you can do in your kitchen lab at home. Food Network starts to become what cable news is to politicos, the daily dose of the wider world directly into your home. Internet recipes and videos are the culinary porn driving the appetite to learn it all, then work it, make it, do it, makes us harder, better, faster, stronger, though your applicability to those particular Kanye lyrics might vary.
Then, mind expanded to near infinite tasty possibilities, you start actively exploring for food experiences to have in real life outside of the screen and kitchen. Culinary quests with edible achievements to unlock. Edible mountains that need to be climbed because they are there. Even accidental discoveries of amazing food are heightened because your own knowledge allows an appreciation of what goes into the day in and day out toil of those hard working folks and places that you parachute into for your bucket list morsel moment.
Which is how I found myself venturing eastward from Little Rock, Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee, one fine day in May. A trip that caused me to unknowingly walk into the deepest of edible rabbit holes I’ve yet to — and am disinclined — to emerge from. It was in one of a hundred pop up tents and booths set up for the yearly celebration of all things cooked low and slow over fire. It was a large man with a larger personality. It was a foil tray, with more foil on top peeled back to an escape of steam and scent and heat. It was a charred looking chunk of meat emerging by the hand of its pit master who was uninterested in my level of skepticism, fully committed to his loved-over morsel converting a new believer.
“You sure about this?” I asked only half joking, as I went to pop it into my mouth.
“Trust me, there’s a reason folks love it,” came the reply with a knowing grin and amusement.
I took, and ate. It was a bomb going off, of char and flavor and goodness and unctuous and Oh My God what is that…
“That son,” he all but beamed in pride, chuckling to himself, and grabbing a piece of his own, “is an honest to God burnt end.” He shook his head as he chewed, making a deep rumbling noise among the masticating before the actual word formed and escaped his still-in-motion mouth.
Origin Stories, Allegedly, Maybe
Depending on which version you believe, what we now call burnt ends came out of Kansas City. Understand, even that bare bones, one sentence explainer could start a fight among die hard BBQ folks, so sensitive are certain believers in the unified theory of low and slow on the topic. Which style of BBQ is supreme is a Gordian sauce knot of city and regional pride anyway, and starting in Kansas City you are already dealing with the built-in confusion of a town named for one state but whose postal code says another all the while straddling both. But the most loyal style-stans to Texas-style, Carolina-style, Memphis-style, Tennessee-style, West Texas-style, or where ever else stlye must — if grudgingly — admit that even if Kansas City isn’t your BBQ Mecca it at least is somewhere on the Low and Slow Hajj.
“Kansas City barbeque is an Olympic event” explains Kathleen Purvis, noted food critic: “It’s the melting pot of barbeque cities, the inland beach where every other barbeque style in the country washed up in a tide of smoky-sweet, tomato-based sauce. Texas brisket, North Carolina pork shoulder, Memphis ribs, all smoked over fruit woods and hickory and slapped down on white bread with lard-fried potatoes on the side.”
Which makes it quite suitable that a relatively new fad in BBQ called burnt ends originate from such a place, allegedly by accident.
The popularized origin story of burnt ends is that the leftover of the brisket long considered too charred to sell was handed out to customers in long lines as a tide-me-over snack. As that version of the story goes, the wider world that was not routinely standing in line at Arthur Bryant’s on Brooklyn Avenue in Kansas City in the 1970s, was enlightened by a rather unlikely character. Enter into the winding line to the counter came Calvin Trillin, a writer for Playboy of all things. He cruised in, waited with everyone else, partook of the on-counter offerings of free burnt ends, wrote a piece about it, and voila! burnt ends were all the rage.
The truth is, folks had been eating them for a long time prior; it’s just that the marketing caught up to it when the right writer got a hold of it. Food being the ultimate in copycat endeavors, soon everyone was doing it. Trimming off the tip end of the brisket, re-saucing and cooking it even longer gave the chunks of meat more char but further broke down all that fat in there, creating a morsel of BBQ amazement second to none.
Or, at least, that’s one opinion on it. Everything in BBQ is up for debate, after all. Especially if your introduction to burnt ends came from a Kansas City pit master repping his city and style at Memphis in May.
It’s Not Heaven, It’s Memphis in May
There are stages to Memphis in May, both logistically and literally. Week one is the legendary Beale Street Music Festival, where all manner of musical styles can be heard up close and personal in Tom Lee Park. Though the actual Memphis in May version only goes back to 1977, the tradition of gathering for music on Beale goes deep into the 1800s. Once the 100K or so folks filter through the kickoff, the second part begins, with each year featuring a different country of emphasis for the “international” portion of the Memphis in May International Festival. In recent years, the fourth weekend has taken on a local focus, dubbed 901fest, letting local musicians, vendors, and others enjoy their slice of their city’s premier event.
That third week, however, is when the congregation of all things holy smoked descend upon the banks of the Mississippi River. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest isn’t the most renowned in all the land — an honor reserved for the American Royal in, you guessed it, Kansas City — but it’s on the list along with the Houston Livestock Show, Jack Daniels World Championship, BBQ Fest Lexington, Russian River, and several others.
For all the food, good food at that, of my youth -- the combined culinary might of the Donaldsons, Fosters, Hughes, and all the rest -- we didn’t barbeque much. Oh, we grilled plenty, and slathered sauce on things (Aunt Virginia’s bear in the crock pot with BBQ sauce was a favorite), but true low and slow smoking of things wasn’t prominent. A pan full of Lil’ Smokies swimming in bottled sauce at the family reunion is not competition worthy BBQ, no matter how good it tastes toothpick after toothpick.
But the thing you quickly find out at Memphis in May, and any of the innumerable BBQ and food festivals, is the food is the reason for the season, and sauce might be the boss, but it’s the people who make it special. Not just in the preparing of the food, either. BBQ especially is a communal thing, not just in the massive amounts of food produced, but also in the inherent method of making it. Low and slow plays out exactly as it sounds, low and slow. The high speed low drag of line cooks at a professional high-end kitchen is a different universe from eight, twelve, sixteen hours of tending a smoker at 225 degrees. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait, of staying awake all night long or at least in intervals, of mastering dozens of minute details so the whole is the apex of the parts. The competition is serious for the teams at Memphis in May, with money, and large trophies, and even larger bragging rights to be had on the winners stage, but the process has a lot of down time to it. If Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen is a fast paced modern reality show, the lag of time from when the meat goes on the smoke to the turn-in box for judging is more the speed of Andy Griffith front porch sitting.
That allows the secret sauce of food — not just barbeque but universally — to truly come out: the community of folks who all have to eat. The pit masters are craftsmen, all too happy to extol, explain, and debate the pros and cons of the how they do and why they do it. Like all who have mastered their craft they are subject matter experts after thousands of hours honing their skills. Hours of conversation fill the gaps in time, and at a festival such as Memphis in May you have people from around the country and world all in one place, all with a generally similar purpose, funneled into an area where contrary to most of life, the similarities of humans are emphasized over the differences.
The culinary term is rendering; all that fat starts to melt away, the collagen in the protein breaks down and moistens into the warmed and expanded fibers, self-basting, getting to the point of the non-culinary but accurate term of gooder and gooder. The social aspects of food, whether at a large festival of BBQ or a dinner table with friends and family, should have the same effect. The social term is community: a group of like-minded individuals connected by interactions, and since every human being has to eat, what better to break down barriers than the commonality of food.
Turns out the long neglected, formerly discarded, twice cooked, and newly appreciated burnt ends are not just an amazing culinary discovery for pilgrims on life’s edible journey but a relatable parallel for the complexities of life. Change, and tradition, and charring, and juicing, and acquired taste, and fire, and fellowship all interlocked by the most primal desire of satisfying hunger.
Glory, what a metaphor. Then again, traditions are not always what they appear…
The More Things Change…The More They Don’t Stay the Same
The truth is, everything changes, even long-standing traditions that ostensibly don’t. The burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s themselves that were rhapsodized over and kicked all this off in the first place are not immune from change:
I wonder what Trillin would think of the burnt ends that Arthur Bryant’s serves today. They certainly aren’t the burnt ends that he described in 1972. For as long as I have been ordering Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends, the large, cubed meat has been tough, and the outer rind of bark has been dry. The meat now comes coated in Arthur Bryant’s “Rich and Spicy” sauce, which is sweeter and spicier than the paprika-choked “Original” sauce for which Bryant is famous.
And that is because Arthur Bryant held to another of those most treasured of BBQ traditions, the super secret recipe.
It’s been 37 years since the passing of the namesake proprietor of a joint that has served everyone from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and celebrities and common folk alike in between. The ones in the know, who are old enough to remember, will tell you it just isn’t quite the same, and as it turns out according to current owner Jerry Rauschelbach there is a permanent reason for that.
He said Bryant was known for cooking over a live fire with that unique vinegar-based sauce and that, while they do their best to carry on the tradition, Bryant’s recipes will stay top secret forever. He explained that Bryant would only allow people to look over his shoulder for so long and once he started putting seasonings in, he made everybody leave the restaurant. He then made it by himself and he took those recipes to his grave.
Nobody knew the recipe, by design. Everyone agrees it’s vinegar based and had a boatload of paprika, far more than the current version, but past that, it’s just folks guessing. But with a few of the staff having been there 30+ years, it’s an educated guess.
Such is the unresolved paradox of BBQ, where everything is an unassailable tradition until it ain’t. Even the set in stone dogma of low and slow has been questioned by fire nation heretics looking to blaze their own trail and blur the battle lines between grilling and smoking. The great thing about the medium of smoke and fire is once it goes in the mouth, no escape is possible from the truth of whether it tastes good or not. Taste is the ultimate decider as to whether the practitioner put in the proper amount of time and effort.
“You can’t fake good barbecue with a grill or an oven,” says Guy Fieri, repeating the oldest maxim in BBQ. “You have to be patient.”
Wait, the frosted-tipped walking meme generator of a celebrity chef is being cited as a reference here talking about life and authentic food?
When your BBQ team has banners at both Houston Livestock Rodeo Grand Champions and the most revered of all, American Royal Open Grand Champions, hanging around your competition smoke rig, you get a say. Polarizing as he might be, a guy who is definitely an original, and rose to stardom through a reality show himself, still had to submit a blind tasting box in line with the rules and on time same as everyone else at contests. And won. Probably the most famous food personality in America, Fieri might break all sorts of conventions and wear certain folks the wrong way, but still finds his place in the pews at the service of the smoke, and respects the institution of it. Old and new meld well in the BBQ world. Tradition isn’t broken so much as rendered into something even better, juicer, and more loved, and that’s the way it should be.
It’s a beautiful thing, of the primitiveness of food on a fire — maybe the earliest of mankind’s innovations — and it’s still a cultural touchstone in this most technological of ages. It’s a strand that runs from one of the most notable food people in the world, to a twenty year old displaced hillbilly chomping on his first burnt end to the amusement of a barbeque veteran in Memphis. Weaving through a Playboy writer launching a whole new sub-genre of ‘que under the “opinion” section of a gentleman’s magazine in which “best restaurants” were discussed for folks reading the articles instead of staring at Vicki Peters & Rosie Holotik wearing less than an Arthur Bryant brisket. Best of all, a lineage and strand that can be found in your home, or backyard, or local rib joint, and even on food delivery apps. It’s never been better, or easier, or more convenient, to get the hard earned toils of low and slow. Especially those bits that were once discarded for being too charred, cooked twice, and now are symbols of perfection.
Glory, what a time to be alive.