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From Prometheus to Pork Shoulder

By Kevin Myers on June 09, 2011 11:33 AM

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Steven Raichlen '75 knows more about barbeque than Prometheus knew about fire. His stat sheet includes 26 books, five James Beard Awards, three IACP awards, a PBS-TV series, his own line of grilling tools, the founding of Barbeque University, a beat-down of Bobby Flay in a barbeque cook-off, a BA in French literature from Reed, and his liver has never been eaten by a raptor. Not to gloat, but another advantage over Prometheus.

"I'm not a chef," Raichlen told alumni celebrating Centennial Reunions this week. "Food, for me, has always been a window into culture."

His presentation began with an artist's rendering of the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus Lucy. It is believed that Lucy and her kin were the first to manage fire, and hold the pattern on the original barbeque pit.

He referred to the book Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human, which points to that epoch as one of the great transformations in the evolution of humans. The ability to control fire and use it to cook food was the evolutionary accelerant that led to the rise of Homo Erectus. Raichlen used slides to contrast the huge jaw and small cranium of the Australopithecus with that of the daintier, human-like jaw and expanded cranium of their closest descendents.

His lecture seamlessly bounced from prehistoric times, to Ancient Greece, to Colonial American, to the Reconstruction Era, and to the Industrial Revolution. Barbeque is old and global as evidenced by the title of Raichlen's latest book, Planet Barbecue!: 309 Recipes, 60 Countries. The lecture introduced barbecue's modern American roots in Kansas City, and traveled to remote stops in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Turkey, and South Africa.

Our word for cooking over an open fire came from the Caribbean Taino word "barbacoa." The first printed mention of "barbecue" appears in 1526 in the pages of A Natural History of the West Indies, published by Gonzalo Fernando Oviedo y Valdes. The word continues to have regional meaning. To most it's a style of cooking, but to a Texan it's brisket, in Tennessee and much of the South it means pulled pork, and in Kansas City it's ribs.

In most of the world, barbecue's not necessarily thought of as A Guy Thing, nor does it just mean meat, said Raichlen. In fact in many cultures, particularly in Southeast Asia, combinations of fish, meat, and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked together. Korean barbecue is usually wrapped in lettuce and served with a variety of veggies.

How did a BA in French Literature from Reed prepare Raichlen for chatting with Oprah and Good Morning America as the man who reinvented barbecue? It started in 1975, when he received the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe. This led to training at the Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris, which led to jobs as a food writer and critic, which led to high cholesterol.

"The invention of Lipitor," quipped Raichlen about the cholesterol lowering drug, "opened the door for me to barbecue." From there, he followed his passion and his curiosity. Raichlen writes more eloquently about this journey in Thinking Reed: Centennial Essays by Graduates of Reed College, in his essay "From Christine De Pisan to le Maître du Grill: How a Degree in French Literature Led a Reedie to a Life in Food." The book can be preordered through the Reed bookstore.