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The legacy of the 'father of Kansas City barbecue'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. This week, a woman uncovers a family legacy about food. Growing up in Kansas City, Bernetta McKindra was surrounded by grills and smoke, but it wasn't until later in life that she learned more about her grandfather, Henry Perry.

BERNETTA MCKINDRA: My grandmother and he divorced when my mother was a child, so he died in 1940, and we didn't have a lot of stories about them being together or anything. But my aunt, she said that Granddad, he was the barbecue king.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Perry was known as the father of Kansas City barbecue. That's because in the early 1900s, he began selling smoked meats out of a wooden cart and is credited with creating Kansas City's iconic barbecue style. Bernetta came to StoryCorps with her friend Raymond Mabion II.

MCKINDRA: He came to Kansas City when he was 15 by way of a steamship. He came alone, and so he brought with him this method. You could take these cheaper cuts of meat that was thrown out from the packing plants, you can make it be tender, make it be delicious, make it be where people stand in line and wait for it.

RAY MABION II: That beautiful art of smoking that he perfected and...

MCKINDRA: Yeah.

MABION II: ...Taught other...

MCKINDRA: Yeah.

MABION II: ...Barbecue legends in Kansas City. But he was the original.

MCKINDRA: Right.

MABION II: Even though you never knew him, do you feel like you can relate to him?

MCKINDRA: Oh, yes. You know, 'cause we didn't grow up eating steaks. Not having a lot of money, my mother could cook, but my auntie was a cook. She had a grill in her backyard. There was always barbecue there. I've had barbecued neck bones. My uncle and them would put coon out there and...

MABION II: Right.

MCKINDRA: ...There was a squirrel. And putting those memories together, I'm thinking, yes, barbecue was always there.

MABION II: Yeah. I was thinking about how wonderful it is to be invited to your house and share in on those wonderful Sunday meals that - you are an excellent cook. It is in your gene pool. It's natural, and people would bring you those turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

MCKINDRA: So I would smoke turkeys for holidays. And I did it for years.

MABION II: Yeah. We're out there in the cold, and I don't want turkey any other way. I want it smoked to perfection and that's a beautiful testament that that legacy had transferred down.

MCKINDRA: You know, not growing up with history, not so much even that it was hidden, it just wasn't recorded, I think that that plays such an important part when you know what you've come from and it's good stock. It makes you stand a little straighter. It makes you walk a little more upright to say I have a part in this not just for my family, but it's there for us as a people.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "DISCOVERY HARBOR")

MARTÍNEZ: That's Bernetta McKindra and Raymond Mabion II in Kansas City, Mo. Their interview is archived at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "DISCOVERY HARBOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Esther Honig
Zanna McKay