Snapshots from a Sojourn in Kansas

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“Are you dining alone, honey?” the waitress at Arthur Bryant’s BBQ asked me, surveying my table, three of its four seats empty, with a dismayed glance. Arthur Bryant’s, I had realized, is not a place where people eat solo. The tables around me were filled with families enjoying a Sunday afternoon barbecue lunch, plates stacked high with bones stripped of their meat, pitchers of beer and paper cups of sweet tea drained as the diners talked and laughed and argued and commented on the Chiefs game playing on TVs above the dining room. My bare table announced, just as clearly as my nasal East Coast voice (turned even more gratingly nasal by a cold I’d had all week), that I wasn’t from around there—a tourist who’d wandered into a spot frequented by regulars.

The waitress clucked her tongue when I explained that I was alone in Kansas City, just passing through for the day on my way to Kansas State University. For half a second I thought she was going to play matchmaker and find me a table to join, to save me from my solitary meal. But instead, she thanked me for making Arthur Bryant’s my Kansas City barbecue of choice and walked away, leaving me to once again contemplate the pile of pulled pork and coleslaw sitting on the plate before me. My “pig on a bun” was enormous, and I’d foolishly added a side of baked beans as well. It was easily enough for two meals, but my hotel room didn’t come with a fridge to store leftovers. Wielding knife and fork, I methodically worked my way through the sandwich, consuming three-quarters of the delicious saucy pork before I couldn’t manage another bite. The waitress returned as she saw me preparing to leave, clucking once again over my failure to clear the plate. I assured her the meal was fantastic and that I would not need to eat again for the rest of the day, and she smiled. “Spread the word, honey!”

***

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The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum sits in Kansas City’s historic 18th & Vine district, the center of African American culture in the city. 18th & Vine is most famous as one of the birthplaces of jazz, but the streets were quiet as I walked around last Sunday, a raw and overcast afternoon that felt more like late November than the first weekend of October. It’s clear that Kansas City has tried to develop the 18th & Vine area into a tourist destination, but most of the storefronts looked vacant. I entered the large brick building that houses both the baseball museum and one devoted to jazz; the lobby was nearly empty, save a security guard and ticket seller. After purchasing my ticket, I passed through a stadium turnstile and began looking at the exhibits in the small but thorough Negro Leagues museum.

Most of what I know about the Negro Leagues comes from repeated viewings of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, and the museum covered mostly the same ground but went into further detail. I had known, for example, that the Negro Leagues were never as stable—in structure or finances—as the Major Leagues, but I hadn’t realized how frequently different Negro Leagues dissolved and were reconstituted. I also hadn’t known that Negro Leagues teams began playing baseball at night in 1930—five years before the Major Leagues—because black fans were generally unable to take time off from work to attend daytime games. And I’d never heard that Negro Leagues players often went to Latin America and the Caribbean to play for more money: they could earn $600 to $4000 a contract there, plus expenses, versus $500 a month less expenses in the Negro Leagues.

I saw only four or five other visitors to the museum during the hour I spent there, which is a shame: the exhibits hold a treasure trove of memorabilia and examine the history of the Negro Leagues from almost every angle imaginable. The curators have done a commendable job of celebrating the Negro Leagues and the role that their teams played in the black community, while also criticizing the fact that segregated teams existed in the first place. And while famous figures like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson get their share of attention in museum exhibits, the NLBM emphasizes that its mission is to cover the entirety of Negro Leagues history; it is not a hall of fame. They leave that role to the museum in Cooperstown. “The Negro Leagues existed in the face of segregation,” the museum’s webpage explains, but “Baseball’s shrines should not be segregated today.”

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Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que is considerably more polished than Arthur Bryant’s, and no one batted an eye at a single diner by herself. But it also felt far more corporate and commercialized, with a full line of slick souvenirs and gift boxes of barbecue sauce available for purchase. The menu lacked Arthur Bryant’s take-it-or-leave-it simplicity: Arthur Bryant’s sells meat and sides, nothing more. Joe’s offers chili, gumbo, salads, and even a portobello mushroom sandwich for vegetarians who somehow wander in. The counter staff was friendly (everyone in Kansas is friendly, I’ve decided), if less effusive than their counterparts at Arthur Bryant’s.

I ordered another pulled pork sandwich, skipping the coleslaw on top in favor of a potato salad side, attempting an imperfect comparison between the two famous barbecue joints. Except, I found, they were too dissimilar to really be compared. The Arthur Bryant’s sandwich had been huge and unwieldy, a feast of shredded pork and sauce. Joe’s produced a far more compact sandwich—one that I could actually pick up to eat—with larger chunks of pork and only the barest trace of sauce (though you could add more of your favorite style from bottles on the table). Each was, in its own way, fantastic. Let the Kansas City barbecue debates rage on … I couldn’t choose.

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I had more to do in Kansas than eat barbecue. I needed to get to the “Little Apple”—Manhattan, Kansas—home of Kansas State University to speak at their CHINA Town Hall on Monday night. As I drove along Interstate 80 on Monday afternoon, I kept seeing billboards for places that I wished I had time to stop and check out: a Wizard of Oz museum. The Oz Winery. The Brown versus Board of Education National Historic Site. Yak ‘n Yarn. More wineries. But with my eye on the clock, I kept the speedometer needle at 70 and told myself I’d have to come back and explore Kansas some other time.

A few miles before Manhattan, though, I saw a sign for something that wouldn’t put me too far behind schedule: a scenic overlook. I pulled into the small parking lot and got out of the car, relieved to stretch my legs after two hours on the road. Walking to the designated overlook spot, I surveyed the land below me. Based on nothing more than The Wizard of Oz, I had assumed Kansas would be flat and colorless, but I was in the Flint Hills region, where the land gently rose and dipped, covered by tallgrass prairie in varying shades of green and brown. I took a few photos, then stood at the overlook for another minute, imagining a time when people traveled the hills by covered wagon rather than Hyundai Accent, when the 120 miles between Kansas City and Manhattan would have taken days rather than hours. It was difficult to fathom.

I walked back to my rental car, settled into the driver’s seat, and drove on.

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