It’s a sticky-sweet American classic. But how did it become one of the country’s favorites?
Published Nov. 22, 2022.
What comes to mind when you think of barbecue sauce? In Eastern North Carolina, you may imagine a thin, vinegar–heavy blend with noticeable heat. Swing further south to Alabama, and you might conjure a creamy mayonnaise-based condiment with a tangy kick. But in most of the country, if you see “barbecue sauce” without any other adjectives or mention of geography, you’ll get something modeled after Kansas City–style. You know the type: thick, sticky-sweet, smoky, and darkly hued. Its base is always a tomato product, such as ketchup; it has spices such as garlic or onion powder; and it’s sweetened with molasses, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or a mixture of all three.
Despite having a few notable characteristics, Kansas City–style barbecue sauce refuses to be just one thing. If you visit Kansas City or order sauces from one of the city’s barbecue joints, you’ll notice they’re typically less sweet than what’s available in grocery stores around the country. Even the brands you’ll find at the supermarket—Sweet Baby Ray’s, Heinz, and Bull’s Eye—differ enough in flavor that each has loyal fans. To explore the range of this style, we rounded up a variety of sauces made by famous Kansas City institutions and large national brands.
A discussion about Kansas City barbecue isn’t complete without mentioning the “King”: Henry Perry. Although he bestowed the title on himself, he lived up to it. Perry was adept at smoking various types of meat, including pork, mutton, squirrels, and opossums. He arrived in Kansas City from Memphis, Tennessee, in the early 1900s and was one of the first to become a successful businessman by selling barbecue. He was known for cooking over a fire made from hickory, which produces a sweet flavor comparable to bacon, a practice still common among Kansas City pit masters. Perry topped his smoked meats with a no-frills concoction of vinegar, lard, and plenty of cayenne—but no added sugar or tomatoes—typical for old-school sauces.
Along with running a hugely popular barbecue business, Perry had a few apprentices who became Kansas City’s barbecue giants. Among them were George Gates, founder of the famous Gates Bar-B-Q, and Charlie Bryant and his brother Arthur Bryant. Charlie inherited Henry Perry’s restaurant after the mogul’s death. When Charlie retired in the late 1940s, Arthur took over the business, moved it to 18th and Brooklyn in downtown Kansas City, and renamed the restaurant after himself.
After George Gates died in the 1960s, his son Ollie Gates took over the business and expanded it. It’s now a local chain. Although there is a long-standing rivalry between Gates...
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Sawyer is an assistant digital editor for ATK Reviews. She enjoys baking, collecting Prince records, and all things Toni Morrison.