Will classic KC pit ham disappear amidst the rise of pulled pork?

Photo by Zach Bauman

Marisha Brown-Smith grew up around barbecue. As the third-generation owner of Rosedale Bar-B-Q, the oldest surviving smokehouse in the city, Brown-Smith remembers accompanying her grandfather to the family’s shop on Southwest Boulevard to start the smokers.

In those days, “pork” mostly meant ribs. When that definition strayed, it was to ham or more exotic fare, such as snoots. Pork was never pulled in KC — to the best of Brown-Smith’s recollection, shredded pork butts didn’t pop up here until the early noughties, just about the time of our second conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis.

“With pork, it was a slow pull for us — no pun intended,” Brown-Smith says. “We were a little hesitant to add it.”

It’s been “seven years, give or take,” since Rosedale introduced pulled pork, which has become a staple. But, perhaps owing to Rosedale’s deep connection to rich local traditions, it still sells plenty of neatly sliced pink sheets of pit ham. Rosedale’s ham sales have actually slightly climbed. There’s also the fact that Rosedale’s ham appears to be very good — juicy and plump with just a kiss of smoke, it pairs well with the house’s sweet, pleasantly gritty sauce.

“It does sell enough to keep it on the menu,” says Brown-Smith. “With our combo sandwiches, I’d say half to three quarters of the people ordering beef combos want it with ham.”

That’s not true elsewhere. At Joe’s Kansas City, there’s been a big decline in ham sales, which weren’t sizeable to start.

“In the twenty-three years Joe’s has been in business, ham has never been an exceptionally  high-demand item,” says Doug Worgul, the company’s spokesman. “It’s there because a certain small percentage of any barbecue customer base expects it. I don’t think we’d ever get rid of it.”

Joe’s has, nonetheless, seen a steep drop in ham sales. Worgul says that company-wide, ham sandwich sales are down about thirty percent over the past five years.

“We’re selling fewer than thirty ham sandwiches per week at our original gas station location,” he says.

Although Joe’s isn’t planning to eighty-six its ham, Plowboys recently did just that. Owner Todd Michael Johns says that ham is “still my absolute favorite part of a whole hog” but that after trying to sell dozens of different hams “the movement just isn’t there like it used to be.”

“Pulled pork shoulder has become popular, which isn’t traditional,” Johns says. “Burnt ends are more popular now than they’ve ever been. Smoked ham was a longtime staple in KC BBQ joints, but something had to give to allow more room for other items growing in popularity. I think some of it is that it’s hard to make ham sexy in our foodie culture.”

Brown-Smith says Rosedale isn’t worried about any of that — ham has a loyal following at her shop.

“My ham people, they tend to order ham all the time,” she says.

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