BOURBON, BEEF AND A LONG LIFE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kansas City -- I got to Kansas City on a Wednesday, and by Saturday I had learned a thing or two about throwing a party.

I learned that to avoid running out in the middle of the party and buying more supplies, I should rely on my instincts and not on newsletters telling me of the trends. In other words, buy more bourbon and ease up on the chardonnay.

I learned that rather than running away from meat, folks in Kansas City gather around it. Especially if it has been barbecued.

And I learned that club soda and lime, supplies that virtually every East Coast host would stock up on before giving a party, are left in the Midwestern dust by the more popular lemon and 7-Up.

I went to Kansas City to help put on a party celebrating my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. All the hard work -- securing a party site, decorating it, arranging for the food, finding a band -- had been taken care of by my brothers and their wives. When I got to town, a few days before the event, I was told my job was to go to the liquor store. It was, my relatives figured, something I was good at. It turned out to be harder than I anticipated.

First of all, I tried to buy booze on the Fourth of July. You can't do that in Kansas. The liquor stores are closed, by state order, on July 4th.

Here we have to pause for a brief lesson in Kansas City geography. There are two Kansas Cities that sit right next to each other. The big one is in Missouri and the little one is in Kansas. Lawmakers in Kansas, the home state of Carry Nation, still tend to regard liquor as sin. Missouri officials tends to regard liquor as revenue.

So after being turned down in my quest for hooch in the Kansas, I did what many Kansans regularly do: I drove a short distance across the state line to a liquor store in Missouri.

I ended up at a place called Gomer's. There really is a Gomer; he ran for mayor of the big Kansas City in a recent election, finishing fifth, I think, which is an appropriate number for a liquor store proprietor.

I knew nothing of Gomer's politics. But I did know his store had conservative prices on bottles that held liberal amounts of good California wine.

I figured people at the party would be drinking lots of white wine. Before leaving Baltimore, I consulted with a friend who is a caterer about what I should buy to slake the thirst of 140 people.

Together we decided I should buy oceans of white wine, a river of red wine and a reservoir of soft drinks and juice. That, we agreed, is how people are drinking these days. They are quaffing lighter, clear liquids often with no alcohol in them. All the newsletters and trend studies I get in the mail say so.

So that is what I bought at Gomer's: two cases of white wine, a couple of big bottles of red wine, a case of club soda, a case of tonic and a case of cola. In addition there was going to be a keg of beer at the party, so I thought I was set.

But then a voice in my head whispered the words, "brown liquids." That would be bourbon and Scotch, the liquors that according to the trend spotters are on the way out. I bought some anyway, just in case anybody wanted some traditional highballs, the kind of drink my parents make for their friends at bridge club. And, to appease my trendy conscience, I bought some clear booze too, gin and vodka.

Well, the party began and everything was going swimmingly. Guests were laughing, telling stories. They were admiring the old wedding photograph of my parents and looking over my mother's wedding dress, which was on display, and which, she joyfully pointed out, had a waist that was too slim to go completely around the mannequin.

In the midst of the merriment, I sidled up to the bartender to see if he needed help opening the wine. Forget the wine, he said, he needed more 7-Up.

We've got plenty of club soda and tonic, I said, mistakenly thinking that people wanted something "soft" to drink.

No way, the bartender said, he needed 7-Up to mix with bourbon.

Quickly my youngest brother shot out of the party ran to a nearby store and replenished the 7-Up supply.

A short time later when I checked with the bartender again, he issued another distress call. More bourbon and some lemons would be nice. So I left the party, drove to a nearby liquor store and bought a jug of bourbon and some lemons. On a hunch I bought another jug of Scotch.

It was a good thing, because as soon as I returned to the party, another brother was about to depart on a Scotch run. I stopped him. Meanwhile the wine, which was in great abundance, was virtually untouched.

The entree was, of course, barbecue. There were beef, ham and smoked turkey, all fixed by Jim Nesselrode, a chef who had recently picked up a fistful of awards in area barbecue contests. In addition to buying booze, I was given the job of selecting the barbecue sauce.

Before the shindig started, I talked on the phone with Nesselrode at his kitchen at the Saddle and Sirloin Club in suburban Kansas City. He said his favorite sauce was something called Harmonica Ham. Unfortunately, it is not on the market yet, so he suggested I go to a store in the Crown Center shopping complex in Kansas City, the big one, and taste sauces. So I visited the Professional Chef shop on the ground floor of Crown Center, where there were sauces out for the tasting, the way some stores back here have cheese out for the nibbling.

It was hard work, but I narrowed our sauce selection to three old favorites, Arthur Bryant's, Gates original and KC Masterpiece, and two newcomers, Chef Dan's and Dad's-n-Daughters'.

In other towns diners may get a "melange," or sampling of desserts. In Kansas City, they get a sampling of barbecue sauces.

At the end of the party, when the helium balloons had begun to settle and the last of the leftovers had been packed up, we took stock.

There was a little barbecued meat left, mostly ham, there were bowls full of shrimp salad, and enough white wine to float a prairie schooner. The bourbon and Scotch bottles were dead soldiers, and the gin was on its last legs. The keg of beer was so light it was floating in ice. The next day my son sprayed the remaining beer on grandpa's tomato plants.

What it all proves to me is that not everyone in America is drinking carbonated water with a wedge of lime (we had lots of leftover limes). That there are still folks who embrace beef rather than shun it. And that there are still plenty of folks who prefer a bourbon over a chardonnay.

It may be true that the folks attending a 50th wedding anniversary are older than those attending a party where bottled water and tofu reign.

But after seeing that bourbon-drinking, beef-eating crowd celebrate a marriage that has lasted 50 years, it struck me that these veterans of life might know a little something about how to enjoy it.

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