Grilling culture: an interview with Steve Raichlen

Steve Raichlen, author of Planet Barbecue!, BBQ USA, and The Barbecue Bible.
Steve Raichlen, author of Planet Barbecue!, BBQ USA, and The Barbecue Bible.
Photo credit: Steve Raichlen

Guest post by Graham Hough-Cornwell

Are there any debates more heated than two barbecue enthusiasts hailing from different corners of the country going at it over whose style of ‘cue is better? From the vinegar tang of pulled pork in the Carolinas to the dry rubs of Memphis ribs to the earthy mutton of Kentucky to the sweet beef brisket of Texas, few foods are the subject of such enthusiasm and regionalism. But why stop there?

People across the globe use smoke and fire to coax new flavors out of food. American barbecue is itself the result of influences from all over the world, and this is no more apparent than in the writing and recipes of Steve Raichlen. His first book, The Barbecue Bible, was more than just recipes: compiled over the course of four years and 200,000 miles of world travels, it covers backyards, street stalls, seaside fires, and hickory pits from Georgia to, well, Georgia.

Since then, he’s been expanding an American barbecue vocabulary once limited to burgers and Boston butts to include banana leaves and branzino. After four successful seasons hosting “Barbecue University” on PBS, he has kicked off a new show, “Primal Grill” and released his 27th book, Planet Barbecue!: 309 Recipes, 60 Countries. He is the recipient of the IACP Julia Child Award and two James Beard Foundation Book Awards.

I am grateful to Steve Raichlen for taking time to answer my questions on culture and barbecue around the world and to explain how one turns a background in French literature into grilling expertise.

GHC: Why is barbecue so compelling to you, compared to other ways of preparing food?

SR: Four reasons: flavor, drama, history, and culture.

Nothing intensifies flavor like the high dry heat of the grill. Especially when you grill over wood or charcoal.

Nothing has the drama of cooking meat (or any food) over the dancing flames of a live fire.

Barbecue is intimately intertwined with human history, in ways both obvious and unexpected. For example, the discovery of eating meat cooked with fire by a human ancestor called Homo erectus about 1.8 million years ago had a profound effect on human evolution. Advanced reasoning, speech, our communal social system, technology, and even the division of labor–all stem from barbecue (in the sense of cooking meat with live fire).

GHC: How do you define barbecue?

SR: For me, the term has five meanings:

1.   A piece of equipment–the so called barbecue grill. (This is the original sense of the word etymologically)
2.   A technique involving smoke-roasting food at a low temperature for a long time. (The meaning of the term in the American South.)
3.   A roster of dishes cooked by the above method. (For example, in Texas “barbecue” means smoked brisket. In North Carolina, it means pulled pork. In Santa Maria, California, it means oak-grilled tri-tip.)
4.   A meal cooked and eaten outdoors.
5.   A communal celebration. (This was the sense of the word in George Washington’s day.)

I guess you could say “barbecue” embraces all of this, but you could also say it simply means “live fire cooking.”

GHC: What is your most memorable experience from your travels researching Planet Barbecue?

SR: A private grilling class in Cambodia. A braii (South African barbecue) under the stars in Kruger National Park. Lomo al trapo (beef tenderloin grilled in salt wrapped in a cotton cloth) at the most colorful restaurant in Bogota, Colombia. Mussels grilled on a bed of pine needles in France. And of course taping my French language TV show during a snowstorm in May outside Montreal.

GHC: How does your academic background connect to your global explorations of grilling?

SR: Well, the degree in French literature led me to France to study the history of cooking (via a grant from the Watson Foundation) and classical French cuisine. That led me to the job of wine and spirits editor for GQ Magazine and restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. But I really owe it all to my liberal arts education at Reed College. There I learned to view almost every experience through the prism of cross cultural connections and my interest in history, geography, anthropology, literature, and even science enables me to write barbecue books that are about a lot more than just recipes.

GHC: What are your top favorite three barbeque recipes?

SR: That is really, really hard to say. Lately I’ve been very keen on Caveman T-bone, Martha’s Vineyard harpooned swordfish with fried caper butter, and chicken roasted in a salt crust in the style of Uruguay. (All recipes in book)

GHC: Your new book suggests that barbecue connects people from around the world and from different backgrounds. Could you please comment on this?

SR: Barbecue (live fire cooking) is the lingua franca not only of cooks around the world, but of people around the world–stirring passions and pride wherever you come from. Grilling is the world’s oldest and most universal cooking method. That’s why human beings like it so much–no matter where they live and grill.

GHC: Have you encountered anti-grilling cultures or people? If so, can you please describe them.

SR: Not really anti-grilling cultures, but barbecue is largely absent in the traditional cuisines of Britain, the Benelux Countries, and China.

GHC: How would you describe “primal grilling” and what made you want to focus on it now?

SR: Two definitions here. The first applies to ancient, primal grilling methods, like pit-roasting (meats impaled on sticks and cooked next or over a campfire), “caveman”-style grilling (laying steaks directly on the embers), or grilling lamb on the blade of a shovel over a campfire, as they do in Australia.

Of course Primal Grill is also the name of my TV show on PBS. The idea here is that we want to show you the roots, rudiments and essentials of grilling–without a lot of fuss or frills.

GHC: If I wanted to visit a “primal grilling” culture, where would I go?

SR: South America–in particular, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay. This is the most primal grilling I know.

Graham Hough-Cornwell is currently living in Fez, Morocco studying Arabic. He is an MA Candidate in Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University, with an interest in culture and culinary history.

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