Opinion: The new KCI Airport should honor the barbecue great who made Kansas City world-famous

In 1908, Henry Perry launched Kansas City’s first-ever commercial barbecue venture from a pushcart in the Garment District.

Star File photo

Years ago, I was in Budapest and met a pair of fellow travelers from Romania. Having already surmised that I was American, one of them asked me, “Where in the States are you from?” When I answered, “Kansas City,” her boyfriend immediately replied, “Man, I need to try some of that Kansas City barbecue.” I had a similar experience in Dublin only a few weeks prior.

On that trip, I realized that our city’s reputation for world-famous barbecue wasn’t just hyperbole. Around the globe, our city is best known for its culinary calling card. People who know KC know our barbecue. Yet most — even locals — are unaware of the man responsible for our city’s global reputation.

In 1908, Henry Perry launched Kansas City’s first-ever commercial barbecue venture from a pushcart in the Garment District. His smoked meats were so popular among the factory workers that, in 1910, he opened his own restaurant on the East Side. By all accounts, Perry’s was the first barbecue restaurant in the city and one of the first in the nation.

Within those walls, the self-dubbed “Barbecue King” invented the barbecue style that put Kansas City on the map. Several local pitmasters still use his approach to smoking meats. Perry is also responsible for one other crucial element that makes Kansas City barbecue unique: the sauce. While his recipe was quite different from what we know today, it was still Kansas City’s first barbecue sauce, and likely the first commercially available one in the country.

A Black entrepreneur in the early 20th century, Perry transcended several racial and socioeconomic divides. Perry’s restaurant may very well have been the first truly integrated business in the city.

Perry also believed in giving back. On July 3, 1920, he began an annual tradition of feeding more than 1,000 local elderly and children, free of charge.

When he died, Perry left the restaurant to his apprentice Charlie Bryant. Charlie sold it to his brother Arthur, who famously added molasses to Perry’s signature sauce and established the Kansas City style. Another apprentice, Arthur Pinkard, was pivotal in opening Gates Bar-B-Q.

In 1974, Calvin Trillin wrote: “What I can’t understand is why this town … doesn’t even have a three-dollar plaque for Henry Perry.” More than 50 years later, his words still ring true. No official monument in Kansas City bears the name of the man who gave our city its greatest reputation.

We have an opportunity to change that.

Recently, we opened a brand-new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. You might have heard about it. Our glimmering new gateway to the world has been widely celebrated.

Right now, The Kansas City Star’s editorial board has an online poll asking locals to weigh in on who or what should be honored with the airport’s new name. Despite there being an online petition I created with hundreds of signatures calling for Henry Perry’s name to adorn the airport, he is such an unknown commodity that board did not include him among its 16 choices.

Even still, The Star understands the importance of Perry’s contributions enough that “barbecue” is an option in the poll.

Kansas City is at a crossroads. Millions will fly into our city in the coming years. They will pass through a terminal that celebrates the best of our city. And nearly every one of these travelers will share a common goal: getting their hands on some of our world-class smoked meat.

Romans named their airport after Leonardo da Vinci. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International welcomes travelers to the Big Easy. Henry Perry has earned his place in Kansas City history. If we don’t similarly celebrate one of our greatest historic figures and tell his story, who else will?

Devan Dignan of Kansas City is a local history and barbeque enthusiast. He is the chief blogger for the website kcdiscovery.com


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