Steven Raichlen & the Holy Grill
Steven Raichlen didn’t exactly hear the voice that spoke to him that November day that altered his course. Still, the words were as clear, authoritative and ultimately on target, as though they had come from God.”I remember hearing the words: ‘Follow the fire.’ I knew it meant I should travel the world’s barbecue trail,” said the 53-year-old Raichlen, enjoying a coffee – and not the triple espresso he had hoped for – in the Food & Wine Magazine Classic press room, in the St. Regis Aspen hotel. “It was an epiphany, one of those life-changing moments. I remember the setting, the weather, what I was wearing.”
Like the assistant supermarket manager John Denver played in “Oh, God!” Raichlen was an unlikely recipient of his particular message. Raichlen, who had encountered a cholesterol problem during his ’80s stint as a restaurant critic, was working on, of all things, a low-fat cookbook when he was sent into the land of milk and honey spareribs (see page 153 of his latest book, “Raichlen on Ribs”). But he recognized the weight of his mission.”I thought it was an unbelievably cool idea,” said Raichlen, a lifelong foodie who, after graduating Portland’s Reed College, accepted a fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe (turning down a Fulbright scholarship to study comparative literature in the process). “It was like a thunderbolt out of left field, and I couldn’t not do it.”Raichlen’s path does, indeed, seem guided by heavenly forces. He wrote a book proposal in one morning; the publisher sent a contract the following week. In short order, “Barbecue! Bible,” a global overview of grilling methods – Jamaican jerk, Argentinean asado, Indian tandoori – was published. Following the publication, in 1998, Raichlen had a choice to make: whether to give similar treatment to a topic like noodles or salads, or to stay on the barbecue trail.
“I stuck with barbecue,” said Raichlen, who splits his time between Coconut Grove, Fla.; Martha’s Vineyard; and a never-ending string of airplanes. “I decided, for once in my life, to go deep rather than wide. So I’ve made barbecue my life’s work.”Raichlen has written several more books on the topic, including the new “Raichlen on Ribs.” His PBS program, “Barbecue University,” is in its fourth season. His school, also Barbecue University, at the Greenbriar resort in West Virginia, has expanded to seven sessions to answer demand. Raichlen has lost track of how many Food & Wine Classics he has attended; he leads a Rib University demonstration at 2 p.m. today.”It’s such a deep and rich subject,” Raichlen said of grilling. “The fact that it’s done in every country in the world lets me explore everything I’m interested in: history, travel, culture, anthropology, physics, chemistry.”
And playing with fire. “As an adolescent, I was infatuated with setting things on fire. So this was a way of sublimating that fascination in a productive way.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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