Seasoned JCCC Group Promotes Collegiality Through Barbecue
February 2011, Volume 6, Number 2
This encore edition of Innovation Showcase first appeared in November 2008.
by Peggy Graham
When four Johnson County Community College employees set out for a barbecue lunch in 1997, little did they know they had created one of the most unique ways to foster collegiality on a community college campus in the country. They like to say unique in “the universe,” which might be true or might be hyperbole. It’s hard to really care about fact-checking when you’re sinking your teeth into a hot tender serving of well-smoked ribs.
Participants in the June 2008 Learning College Summit in Overland Park got a taste for the camaraderie generated by barbecue when approximately 100 people signed up for an optional “A Taste of Kansas City: Kansas City BBQ Crawl,” organized by JCCC barbecue aficionados. Summit participants filled two tour buses and sampled food from three restaurants in three parts of metropolitan Kansas City—Joe’s 101, Jones Bar-B-Q, and Winslow’s Barbeque. Nobody will confess to the critique that said “it was the best part of the conference,” but many agreed it made the summit memorable.
What started out as four guys going to lunch evolved into a quest for barbecue. The Gastronomic Appreciation Society (GAS) began informally in April 1997 when Jeff Anderson, Dave Ellis, and Rick Moehring, JCCC counselors, invited then newcomer Jeffrey Couch, Intensive English Program director, to their favorite barbecue haunt, Hayward’s Pit Bar-B-Que. During a debate over the best barbecue restaurant, Couch threw down the gauntlet and challenged the group to try Bates City Bar-B-Que.
Membership grew by word of mouth. Eleven years later, about 20 people attend the monthly outings. Colleagues convene once a month and travel to a local barbecue establishment. Side orders include humor, camaraderie, and conversation.
“We use GAS as a kind of welcome wagon for the college,” Moehring said. “We’re proud of the fact that our group brings together various folks from around campus who either don’t know each other or don’t normally get a chance to interact.”
When GAS members get together, there’s a lot of hot air. Getting a serious answer is difficult. They joke that they don’t let talk about politics and sports or getting to know their colleagues interfere with their primary mission—the perfect meal.
Almost immediately, GAS had its own website (www.gasbbq.net), and members began posting monthly restaurant reviews, a “best of the best” listing, and candid photos of the gastronomes taken by other restaurant patrons or waiters.
Reviews rate beans, ribs, sauce, sandwiches, fries, portions, value, service, and atmosphere for an overall score. Members admit that ratings are subjective, and details, such as pickles on the table or red cream soda on the menu, sway opinions. The highest ratings can go to the biggest dives.
GAS web reviews also contain verbatim mouth-watering comments: “This is a very small place that is big on flavor! My brisket sandwich had thick slices of moist, smoky meat, and it was delicious. The beans tasted slow-baked in a wonderful sauce.”
No subtlety goes unnoticed. The group prefers the warm feel of an urban restaurant over ones in a suburban mall because, after all, where can you put a meat smoker in a strip mall? That’s where Kansas City barbecue tradition varies from the Texas Hill Country. In Texas Hill Country, some of the best barbecue is found out in the country at former markets. In Kansas City, the best atmosphere is in the urban core, whether that’s Kansas or Missouri. Ambience is considered half the value. Opinions are based on personal taste, some members having personally eaten at more than 200 barbecue restaurants.
GAS lunches prove to be a leveling experience. Everyone on campus is welcome.
“Barbecue is a wonderful communal food, a food that lends itself to casual conversation,” Moehring said.
You might be rubbing shoulders with a dean or vice-president. They can offer their opinions about the burnt-end combo plate, but their opinions are no better than anyone else’s. The GAS group quotes Arthur Bryant, one of Kansas City’s barbecue legends: “You don’t get fancy with barbecue. When you get fancy, you get out of line.”
There’s a lot of ribbing going on at lunches, like about the time Ellis forgot to call ahead and the group drove all the way to Spring Hill, about 20 miles, only to find the restaurant closed on Mondays.
Wendy Farwell, counselor, says she was responsible for initiating women into GAS. Women are invited, but they are definitely the minority, as many women tend to shy away from large quantities of meat.
There is a suspicion that vegetarians may be attending the monthly barbecues just for the fun of being with the group.
The internet brought GAS notoriety. Within its first year, GAS had a website and people from all over the world started contacting the members for their expertise in Kansas City-style barbecue.
The first was a chef from the Netherlands requesting an internship with the group. While eight GAS members have become certified barbecue judges, they laugh about being considered professionals. The Netherlandic chef was referred to Dan Turner, JCCC professor, hospitality management, for a more scholarly internship.
In April 2002, two London restaurateurs saw the GAS website and visited the group in order to learn as much as they could about authentic Kansas City barbecue. About fifteen GAS members took the Brits on a lunch outing to five places and set them up with a tour of some of the smokers in town. Subsequently, the British thanked the GAS gang for their help and opened their own Soho barbecue restaurant, Bodean’s BBQ Smoke House, in December 2002. In turn, Ellis has been to Bodean’s twice, in 2004 and 2006.
GAS ratings posted online have brought other visitors. After reading the GAS web reviews, two Vietnamese men from Chicago had their limousine driver take them to a local restaurant. Closer to home, five men who grew up together in Florida planned a reunion in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, the closest intersection to their respective homes, and consulted GAS on where to eat. Later they wrote, “We found heaven because of the GAS website. ... We are rib people. We don’t care about sandwiches, or pulled pork, or eastern Carolina slop. We want ribs. So we all studied your website and used it as our only source for the BBQ portions of our trip.”
The media also discovered GAS. Local Kansas City papers covered the group with clever quips. The St. Louis Dispatch recommended their website writing, “So next time you’re rolling down I-70 toward Kansas City, consider taking the advice of those hearty souls who have polished off reams of ribs and sampled a slew of sauce. In GAS we trust.”
The Kansas City Star’s Doug Worgul devoted a chapter to GAS in his book, The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities, and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue. The Economist sent a reporter to write a story, “Moveable Feast,” in 1999.
Local television and radio featured GAS segments, and the Food Network ranked GAS number two in its Top 5: Barbecue Fantasies, first aired in June 2003 and from time to time since.
“There are restaurants that have really taken off because of our reviews,” Moehring said.
Good Food, Good Fellowship
Even with 11 years under its collective belt, GAS remains passionate about its combo of food and fellowship. With a claim to barbecue capital of the world, Kansas City has a wealth of establishments. Ellis says the group will look into repeating restaurants reviewed early on. After all, menus can change in 11 years.
“We don’t get tired of barbecue,” Moehring said.
Barbecue is a sharing food. Plates are passed with a “try one of these.” Or a single order of boiled peanuts arrives for everyone to taste. Members use squirt bottles to run a line sauce on their fingers for taste comparisons—questionable etiquette, but very essential.
“GAS allows people to let their hair down for a couple of hours. The lunch brings people together from every part of campus—someone from the print shop to a vice president,” Ellis said. “Plus I anticipate a different makeup to the group every month. I look forward to meeting new people.”
Tom Grady, faculty development coordinator, started at JCCC last fall and says GAS was a “great way” to get acquainted.
“I felt honored to be asked to lunch when I first arrived. It was a nice gesture,” Grady said. “When you’re a new person, you always wonder how you’ll fit in. It’s always easier to stay in your office than to get out and meet people. The lunches made it easy. It’s nice to feel welcome.”
“Unlike most groups, you don’t have to be a seasoned member to fit in,” Moehring said. “The group is fun to be around. Lunch with colleagues becomes addictive.”
Frequent GAS attendee Dana Grove, executive vice president, education and planning, and chief operating officer, summarizes the group’s reason-to-be this way, “In the Kansas City metropolitan area, barbecue is the common denominator of its citizenry. Politicians and day laborers, religious leaders and artisans risk greasy fingers and sauce-stained shirts in their quest for tender baby back ribs and lively conversation. For my part, I always enjoy returning to the office after an outing with the JCCC barbecue group, proclaiming ‘I just went out for lunch with GAS!’ The looks I get are priceless.”
A Side Order of Lessons Learned
“What started out as a challenge has snowballed into an 11-year odyssey that has spanned the ridiculous to the sublime,” said Anderson, one of the GAS founders. “How did this initial challenge morph into something this far over the top? I mean really, 11 years running and more than 100 barbecue reviews, TV appearances, interviews, book references? No one would have guessed that back in the founding days. The common denominator that keeps this group rolling is the interest in barbecue and the opportunity to meet people from other parts of the campus. Initially, we did not see the connection with a staff development function, but as the years have passed and more people became involved, it’s turned into a vehicle to welcome people to the campus and meet colleagues from across the campus. I can’t think of many programs we have at JCCC today that have run this long and have served this purpose.”
“If there’s a moral to the story, it’s this: You can begin your own odyssey with colleagues and students right now by looking around at what your community has to offer your group, e.g. food, recreational and social activities, volunteer opportunities, etc.,” said Couch, another of the original GAS members. “In this journey called education, everyone realizes students, faculty, and staff benefit from the friendships, collegiality, and ideas your campus cultivates and actualizes through a spirit of fellowship.”
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.