Some people say that barbeque is nearly a religion. After logging more than 2,000 miles and devouring so many ribs and burnt ends that I don’t even want to count, I’m a believer. Across Kansas, the passion for barbecue runs as deep as the flavors. Even hometown cafes, I’ve discovered, take their ‘cue seriously, something I notice on the first stop of my smoky, saucy sojourn.
At Wichita’s celebrated Pig In! Pig Out! , I walk past a wall blanketed with hundreds of ribbons that the smoke masters here have earned at competitions. Impressive as it is, I’m more focused on what to order on my first visit. The burly guy in front of me turns out to be a purist, walking away with a full slab of ribs and two slices of white bread. I hedge my bets on the combo, then carefully balance a foam plate heaped with ribs, brisket, beans and coleslaw to a table appointed with jugs of sauce and rolls of paper towels. Through my sauced-up fingers and, might I say, an expertly gnawed rib bone, I notice the ragged line of yet-to-order diners attention rapt, eyes fixated on the big wall menu as if it holds the secret to life. Most give it one final glance before ordering.
In all, I find Wichita to be a barbecue hotbed with more than a dozen great restaurants. Delano’s qualifies as a meat-eater’s paradise, and its spicy coleslaw and seasoned fries are pure bliss. Because it’s in a historic shopping area just west of downtown, diners can walk off some of the damage. At Jet Bar-B-Q  customers drive through a renovated firehouse to get lunches of brisket, hot links or turkey. It strikes me as ironic that a firehouse smells so smoky good!
Steeped In Tradition
As I sample my way across the state, leaving behind piles of messy paper towels as calling cards, I see the same level of intensity that I saw in Wichita. I’m not surprised. This is, after all, beef country, and Kansas takes its barbecue seriously.
Kansas City, the big city on the Missouri River, is home to Rosedale Barbeque —worth a visit for a unique sweet, fruity sauce. So, too, are the stores that cater to purveyors of smoke. Rancher’s Gourmet in Overland Park is among the boutique butcher shops that sell prime Angus brisket and Berkshire pork shoulder. The store also offers daily tastings, with a rotating schedule that includes prime-grade beef, Berkshire pork, bison and seafood. In Olathe, renowned rubs and sauces fill shelves at the store attached to Jeff Stehney’s acclaimed Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ ; the original restaurant is in a gas station off I-35 in Kansas City.
A Rib Here, A Brisket There
Beyond Kansas City, in the eastern two-thirds of the state (the western third works at perfecting chicken-fried steak), I am usually just a turn off the highway from a no-frills, family-owned restaurant with the intoxicating smell of meat slow-cooking in a cloud of hickory, oak, apple, even hedgewood. In Pittsburg, smoke curls from a cooker in front of the little Curbside BBQ & Coney’s (120 miles south of Kansas City). “I’m self taught,” head cook and retired postmistress Maggie Burlingame says proudly. I must say, she taught herself well. Maggie and her husband, Bill, make a mean pulled pork sandwich in this former gas station that’s conveniently close to the big appetites at Pittsburg State University.
Each mom-and-pop place I visit—from Roy’s Hickory Pit BBQ  in Hutchinson to Boss Hawg’s  in Topeka—has its own special rub and sauce. You may be able to buy a jar of sauce, but trust me, the recipe is a secret.
At Guy & Mae’s Tavern in Williamsburg (14 miles west of Ottawa; (785) 746-8830), I try to cajole the recipe from Mae Kesner. She and her late husband, Guy, set up a smoker in this tiny town back in the ‘70s. Each week, just about everyone in Mae’s extended family pitches in to turn out more than 1,200 slabs of ribs and other meats in the giant smoker. Weekends, diners from Ottawa, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence jam booths and spill onto picnic tables outdoors, devouring ribs served on newspaper—a tradition credited to Mae’s disdain for washing dishes. Bandleader Doc Severinsen and baseball hall-of-famer George Brett have eaten here. Me? I’m not only not famous, but on my visit to this smoky shrine, I fail to lean forward as I eat my sandwich of tender, thin-cut eye-of-round roast. What’s in this new stain on my T-shirt? “It’s an absolute secret,” Mae says, laughing.
Sampling the Competition
Restaurants are just one part of the Kansas barbecue scene. Smoky meats and saucy secrets turn competitive at cook-offs held throughout the year in parks, fairgrounds and racetracks (a sampling follows). There’s always an open invitation to attend. Bring a big appetite—you’ll get to taste some of the best barbecue around.
Annual Barbecue/Backyard BBQ Contest, Dodge City (late July) The famed gun-slinging Wild West town is an appropriate setting for dueling smoke masters. (620) 227-3119; dodgecitydays.com/barbeque.html 
Battle of the Brisket, Mission (mid-September) Smokers take over a town that was a stopping point for covered wagons on the Santa Fe Trail. (913) 671-8564; missioncvb.org 
Brew, Blues & Bar-B-Q, Lansing (early May) It doesn’t get much better than live blues and championship barbecue. Coinciding with the Lansing Daze Festival, there’s also family fun. (913) 727-3233; lansing.ks.us 
Flint Hills Beef Fest, Emporia (mid-August) A cook-off is a natural (so is a rodeo) at this big celebration of the Kansas cattle industry. (620) 344-3849; beeffest.com 
Great American Barbecue Festival, Kansas City (mid-May) With a carnival and fireworks combined with the activities, this Memorial Day weekend celebration is a sizzling start to summer. (913) 422-9599; thinkbbq.com 
Great Lenexa Barbecue Battle, Lenexa (late June) This event started with 12 contestants. Two decades later, the contest attracts nearly 200 competitors from across the country. (913) 477-7500; lenexa.com 
Kansas Winter Q, Great Bend (mid-February) A sauce-tasting fund-raiser chases away the winter blues. (620) 793-2985; chesttochest.com/winterq 
McLouth BBQ Blowout, McLouth (early June) The backyard barbecue division is a great starting point for novices. (913) 796-6122; cityofmclouth.org 
Smoke in the Spring, Osage City (mid-April) Categories in this state-designated championship range from brisket to dessert. (785) 528-4610; smokeinthespring.com 
More destinations we love
Kansas City Tender smoked meat with a unique sauce at Wyandotte BBQ. (913) 788-7554.
Lansing Douse meats with regular or competition sauce at Daniel's; the homemade fries are a favorite. (913) 351-2440
Lawrence Barbecue purists go to Gran-Daddy's Q, where meats include a big shredded brisket sandwich. (785) 830-8665). Buffalo Bob's Smokehouse has served its meaty platters in this university town since the 1970s. (785) 841-6400. Vermont Street BBQ,  in a spacious location on Massachusetts Street, serves the standards plus smoked turkey quesadillas and chicken wings.
Paola Burnt ends rank No. 1 at The BBQ Shack .
Manhattan Pat's Blue Rib'N Barbeque  spices up the college enclave of Aggieville with its chicken wings.
Buhler Beef brisket is the front-runner at Lavon's Bakery and BBQ , which smokes its meats with real wood. Made-from-scratch pies sweeten the meal.
Lincoln The city's Extra Innings Barbeque scores points for jalapeno mustard sauce — great on pork. There's also a sweet, mild red sauce for traditionalists. Baseball fans will appreciate the old-time sports memorabilia (785) 524-5335.
Salina At Hickory Hut BBQ , ribs earn the raves.
Liberal Smoked spare ribs rule at Billy's Mexican Grill & Q. Take your pick of original or spicy. Pulled pork and brisket are also on the menu. If you're craving Mexican, the pulled pork wrap still delivers smoky bites of barbecue. (620) 626-4400.
Barbecue restaurant recipes
Oklahoma Joe's Tasty Ribs  A favorite at Oklahoma's Joe's BBQ Restaurant in Kansas City.
Joe's KC-Style Barbecue Sauce Peppery with a kick best describes this tangy barbecue sauce.
Smoked Beef Brisket  Serve this tender brisket from Oklahoma Joe's straight up or on a bun.
Spicy Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese Dressing  These succulent chicken wings might disappear as fast as you can grill them. The recipe comes from Danny Edwards Famous Kansas City BBQ, formerly Li'l Jake's Eat It and Beat It. The tiny, no-frills eatery has served weekday lunch crowds in Kansas City for more than two decades.