It was a bit after 3:00 pm that the Missouri River Runner ground to its halt, marking the train’s arrival at Union Station. As we disembarked, our attentions were turned to the decorated hallways and grand chandeliers of the station as if a French palace was uprooted and transplanted into the Midwest. Beaux-Art architecture aside, we were now in the American heartland of Kansas City where “strangely wonderful” seems to be its badge of honor.
Honey Pizza, Anyone?
Jared and Dave, our Couchsurfing hosts, were already there to pick us up and our hungry tummies indicated loudly that they should be filled first before we partake in any further adventures. We went to this hole-in-a-wall joint called Joe’s Pizza Buy The Slice to sample a fine Kansas City tradition – pizza glazed with honey.
This practice apparently was started by customers who wanted to dip their leftover crusts in honey like a dessert and it became so popular the owner had to dish out bottles of honey as condiment.
I had a plain slice so as to not mix up my taste buds and it actually did turn out well – the lingering sweetness of the honey blended nicely with the fluffy home-made pizza dough. There are thousands of great culinary innovations throughout history but nothing compares to the simplicity of squeezing honey onto a pizza.
From La Seine To Seville
After a lively snack, we went for a stroll at the south side to marvel at Kansas City’s very own little Seville – Country Club Plaza. “The Plaza” was designed by local developer J.C. Nichols in 1922 who became enamored by Andalusia after a trip across the pond and he decided to replicate it in his hometown. It was planned as an upscale shopping and office district and has been continuously in operation for nearly a century.
It was quite a surreal experience for us roaming The Plaza where opulent statues dot almost every corner and benches with colorful mosaic tiles were neatly placed near fountains. There was even a reproduction of the Giralda Tower of Seville crafted as a prominent landmark of the neighborhood. For about an hour, we really felt we were wandering around southern Spain!
The Town Where Jazz Grew Up
While New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, America’s music grew up in Kansas City.
The corner of 18th & Vine was deserted when we arrived at this historic district. Two prominent buildings stood out in what looked to be swaths of unoccupied building blocks – American Jazz Museum and the adjacent Blue Room. The neighborhood’s eerie quietness was a far cry from the swinging 40’s and 50’s where boisterous jazz clubs keep going on till all the wandering musicians were either too tired or wasted to play.
Founded on the tenet of musical improvisation and jam bands, Kansas City Jazz evolved from the standard big band jazz of the Deep South – something I remembered from taking a online class on the history of rock and roll. I really enjoyed all the exhibits particularly the audio booths where I took my time discerning the evolution of jazz as it escaped the swamps of Louisiana to the bright lights of Chicago via Kansas City.
Arthur Bryant’s: A Barbeque Institution
Wherever there’s raucous late night, there’s bound to be a food joint selling cheap wholesome meals just around the corner. Only two blocks away from 18th & Vine lies one of the greatest barbeque institution of the United States, if not the world – Arthur Bryant’s. It started off a century ago serving factory workers in the old Garment District before slowly establishing itself as a barbeque institution, garnering visits from famous people including President Obama himself.
So, what’s so good about Arthur Bryant’s? Two words: burnt ends.
It’s Kansas City barbeque’s pièce de résistance. It’s meat cut from the point half of the brisket. It’s crispy and smoky yet juicy and tender all at the same time. We had a mixture of point and flat cuts of the brisket and they were served “open-faced,” meaning a gigantic pile of meat slathered in home-made sauce was placed together with an equally huge amount of fries on a measly-looking piece of bread, just to quality it as a sandwich. A perfect plate for us traveling ravenous carnivores.
Midwest Modern At Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Massive. That was our first impression upon stepping in the white-washed and spacious gallery of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art‘s Bloch Building. This giant glass-metal box is home to a vast collection of contemporary art, photography and a sculpture garden. We spent quite a while here as I was impressed with the museums post-1945 modern art collection, which I rate to be on par with New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
We breezed through the main building and decided to escape the walls and columns of this Neoclassical behemoth for the fresh air of the city. The museum opened up to a sprawling lawn with more sculptures scattered around, including a miniature version of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” We were more enthralled by two giant shuttlecocks placed in the main lawn, reminding us of one of Malaysia’s top national sports – badminton.
Two full days in Kansas City had reaffirmed my belief that this town is indeed strangely wonderful. I expected it to be a typical Midwestern town where agriculture forms the backbone of society yet it is more than that. K.C. celebrates those who desire to call it home and allows the people to put a stamp on their own culture – hence, the out-of-place Sevillan architecture, the improvisation-based jazz and honey on a slice of pizza. Kansas City is truly one of the most fascinating crossroads city in America.
This post is part of The Great American Adventure backpacking trip in summer 2010 with two of my buddies. With Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass, we visited 11 cities, 4 college towns, 2 national parks and 1 town dubbed The Sex Change Capital of the US.