We left Kansas City at 10:15 a.m. yesterday—me with breakfast on my lap, a Gates’ burnt ends sandwich—and pointed the car north. We arrived in Two Inlets 14 1/2 hours later, 640 miles behind us, with stops for proper meals of course.
I didn’t photograph the sandwich because I knew that it would never be able to capture its beauty. In my experience snapping food, hacked pork doesn’t have a good side. (Has Gates’ burnt ends sandwich ever been photographed? Or does it exist only in the mind, passed from one gluttonous dreamer on to the next?) I can only say this, that this sandwich—four inches of chopped, caramelized smoky pork ends wet with a bit of sauce, sidelined with spicy pickles, on a soft eggy bun—is a triumph of human achievement. It is, as Colin Firth said of Meryl Streep at the Oscars this year, “unreasonably good.”
And by eating the barbecue I had been avoiding during my two days in Kansas City, I finally saw the topography of the food scene there. The barbecue, which is excellent, is the tallest hill in town, but it’s not the horizon or the fringe, places that tend to be more interesting. The city has other great restaurants and they’re all advancing an alternate cuisine of the area by making use of the seasonal vegetable bounty, but most of them also continue to mine the possibilities of the pig.
With great success, too. Take a look at this charcuterie plate from chef Michael Beard at 715 Restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, a college town just 45 minutes from downtown KC:
He spent some formative time cooking in Italy and it shows: Duck terrine with pecans at 12, Fegatini, rich quenelles of winy pork liver at 2, a perfect house-made Mortadella at 5, and Soppressata Toscana, which resembles headcheese more than it does salami, at 8. Essentially, it’s Italian headcheese, cured with lingering warm spices and thinly sliced. Everything we ate was wonderful, but this plate shows the maturity of this restaurant and this chef. He’s certainly not the only one doing it well in the Midwest—in terms of serious production, there’s La Quercia from Norwalk, IA, and the soon-to-be-reopened charcuterie project from Mike Phillips in Minneapolis—but it’s just another amazing example of how explosive the charcuterie can be when old-world knowledge meets a properly fattened heartland hog.
The local beers—Ad Astra from Free State in downtown Lawrence, and a pilsner from Boulevard in KC, my husband’s new favorite—stood up to the food. Rough limestone formed the walls, the lighting was warm but sensible even in the open kitchen, which felt more like the center of the campfire than a fluorescent line of production. The ship was run by a crew of warm-blooded Midwestern girls, all of whom seemed to have their heads screwed on straight, to know their port from their pilsner and the pleasures of a bone-in ribeye. They dressed subtly in the regalia of the southern Midwest—a boot here, a quill earring there. I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a look that stands better against barn wood in Kansas than it does in Brooklyn.
Dinners like that, and in so many places I went last week make me wonder where the hell I am; no longer is this the candied-apple Midwest of my childhood. (Though I did see candied apples on this trip, and some toothpick holders.) But sometimes it seems like everyone in the Midwest is making beer, cheese or charcuterie—and then you realize that, yes … they are. It’s no dream. Dust off the breweries and kick the antique stores out of the creameries, the real stuff is returning.
I’ll continue this soon. I need to get through Omaha, the prairie star of our trip south. But for today I’ll leave off with more shots through the car window. The ferocious wind throughout Nebraska and Kansas took us by surprise. It routed the winter fields, kicking up a lot of dust and confusion, making a blind.