Sauce, Spice and Everything Nice: Women play important role in KC's barbecue history
The best-known characters in Kansas City’s barbecue story are men. Arthur Bryant. Ollie Gates. Jack Fiorella. K.C. Masterpiece founder Rich Davis. Oklahoma Joe’s Jeff Stehney.
But serving the people, keeping the books and, in some cases, working right there with the boys in the barbecue pit, there have been women. The 12th Street and Brooklyn location known as the original Gates Bar-B-Q started out as a restaurant operated by a mother-daughter Gates duo. Fiorella’s partner in the Jack Stack restaurant chain was his wife, Delores. “Amazing” Grace Harris cooked up barbecue and soul food for music fans and diners at the Grand Emporium in mid-1980s.
The 1980s was the decade when the “sport” of barbecue began heating up. “It’s a sport,” says the smoky-voiced Carolyn Wells. “You don’t have to be athletic, but you do have to have some stamina.”
She was there from the beginning. Then vice president of Wicker’s Barbecue Products (what she calls “the best sauce you’ve never heard of”), Wells helped her husband, Gary, and friend Rick Welch found the Kansas City Barbeque Society, a “club for cookers,” in 1985.
At the time, there weren’t many barbecue contests in the region besides the American Royal, the Great Lenexa Barbecue Battle and the Blue Springs Blaze Off, and enthusiasts were hungry for more. In the spirit of fun, the society started holding its own competitions and soon was called upon to help organize them for other groups.
Three decades later, membership has swelled from an initial 30 local cookers to more than 15,000 barbecue professionals and hobbyists worldwide. The nonprofit organization sanctioned about 400 contests in 2011, across the United States and beyond.
“It’s morphed into one of the fastest growing sports in America,” says Wells, who now acts as the society’s executive director.
After her husband and Welch passed away, she says she was acutely aware of being the last one left in the founders’ circle. In another sense, though, Wells was far from alone.
As in the world of barbecue restaurants, men dominate the competition circuit. But they are assisted, guided and even challenged in the pit by wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. “Women have high participation in competition barbecue,” Wells says, “although they’re not usually the ones to go accept the medals.”
Exceptions to the rule include 74-year-old Donna McClure of Lenexa, Kan. An original member of the society, she’s been cooking with her husband and a friend on the “PDT” team for 30 years. Like many others, she stumbled into the competitive barbecue world and discovered she loved the process of slow-cooking slabs of meat to a seasoned, saucy perfection.
The team got its start after McClure and her husband helped out at the first-ever contest in Lenexa in 1982. “We didn’t know about barbecue,” she says. “I don’t even know if we had a Weber grill at that point.”
They recruited a friend to cook with them the following year, and then barbecue became McClure’s obsession. “I didn’t know I was competitive,” she says. “But as far as taking care of a piece of meat, seasoning it, I just took that as a challenge and accepted that as my part. The guys would stay up all night and watch the temperature and add more charcoal or wood. And I got my sleep.”
The team came to be known as “Donna’s team” and racked up titles across the region. Similarly, Karen Putman was the recognized leader of her team, Flower of the Flames. The group earned some 400 awards for a raspberry sauce she developed. “At the American Royal, we entered our sauce in every category and placed in them all, but we did not take one ribbon home for our meat,” her sister, Ronna Keck, recalls.
Putman, a chef, entered a contest and had so much fun she got her sister to join. “She called me and told me about doing this barbecue contest and how fun it was,” Keck says. “The next thing I know I’m at the Lenexa contest in 1985, cooking.”
The team competed steadily until Putman’s death last fall. Keck and her teammates plan to carry on the Flower of the Flames through contests and maybe more. “My dream is to get the sauce company going again and get it back on the market,” Keck says.
Other barbecue champions have landed their own blends of rub and sauce on retail stores and otherwise profited from their recipes. “BBQ Queens” Karen Adler and Judith Fertig don tiaras and rhinestones when they cook. Together, they parlayed their love of smoked meats into careers as cookbook authors and barbecue instructors, and have authored more than 20 cookbooks.
Adler, who lives in Mission, Kan., remembers her introduction to barbecue battles, a 1987 spring training contest open only to Barbeque Society members. She cooked against K.C. Masterpiece founder Rich Davis.
“It was a beautiful day and my first contest as a competitor,” Adler says. “I was peeling the membrane off my ribs and using my chef’s knife to do some trimming. The Baron of Barbecue Paul Kirk came over to me and said, ‘I’ve been watching you. Looks like you know what you are doing. Good Luck!’”
Success on the competition circuit is what ultimately led the mixed-gender Slaughterhouse Five team to launch the first Oklahoma Joe’s restaurant in a Kansas City, Kan., gas station. As that group gears up to open a third location in the metro, it’s clear that growing popularity of the barbecue sport is leading to new challenges for even the most established names in Kansas City.
Arzelia Gates, a third-generation member of the barbecue dynasty, says she’s noticed a barbecue culture shift in the last 20 years in Kansas City. Barbecue joints aren’t the “greasy spoons” of the old days, and “they’re cropping up like crazy.”
“We’re trying to hold our own,” she says.
Along with her siblings, Gates grew up working the counter and mopping the floors of their family’s famous barbecue restaurants, where all diners are greeted with “Hi! May I help you?”
Now 59 and managing community relations for the company, she recalls serving slabs to eager customers until 3 a.m. as a young woman. “I didn’t appreciate it back then,” she says, “but that sure was fun. We always had a crowd.”
Only two of the six Gates locations are open as late as 1 a.m. now. Yet, running the business does keep three generations of the family, including two brothers, a sister, her daughter, and nieces and nephews, busy seven days a week.
“The women pretty much run the show,” Gates says. “We’ve got ‘em in power positions.”
So far, though, none of the women have followed their grandmother or Aunt Winnifred all the way back to the grill.
“It was always a boy’s thing,” Gates says of the barbecue process. “But we know when they’re not doing it the right way.”
Meanwhile, as the ring of competitive smokers continues to grow in the metro, barbecuers like Keck hope more women do jump in the pit. “It’s some hard work, you know. But there’s always a guy around to lift something heavy.”
Photo provided by Kansas City Barbeque Society