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BBQ Scholar

It's the world's oldest cooking method, and as you study the history of bargbecue, you reallize that a lot of what makes us human happened over a barbeque pit.
Raichlen observing food prep

Raichlen observes the preparation of kokoretsi, a traditional Greek dish consisting of spit-roasted lamb or goat intestines, heart, sweetbreads, and kidneys.

 
   

Sitting in his library, which occupies an old carriage house in the backyard of the Spanish-style home in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood that he shares with wife and publicist Barbara Seldin, Raichlen appears fit, youthful, and a bit bohemian. He doesn’t look like a guy who has spent the past decade gorging on pulled pork and baby back ribs (“Thank God for Lipitor,” he quips). But despite the conspicuous presence of the tools of his trade—he’s got 15 grills and several smokers scattered around the yard—the master griller says he’s ready to start a new chapter in his professional life. Although he’s still got barbecue projects in the works, including a new cookbook, a documentary about grilling, his own grill design, and a restaurant (or possibly a chain of them), he’s also heading off into uncharted territory: he just finished his first novel.

The work, as yet untitled, is a love story set on an island off the coast of New England. “When people hear I’m writing a novel, they immediately ask if it’s a food novel, but it’s totally not,” he says. Raichlen is reluctant to reveal much about the plot, but says that the eclectic cast of characters includes a self-help guru, a motorcycle mechanic, a hermit, and a book editor. The story draws on New England lore, the history of medicine, and the works of Cicero, Wilhelm Reich, and the medieval French poet François Villon. And Raichlen is already dreaming up ideas for his next novel, a mystery involving an art history professor on sabbatical in Amsterdam—inspired in part, he says, by memories of one of his Reed student jobs, photographing books for use in art history lectures in the days before PowerPoint.

Raichlen’s other student sidelines were slopping trays in commons and working at Otto’s Sausage Kitchen up the hill; as a labor of love, he cooked through Julia Child during his time at Reed, serving up the results to his housemates. He says that his approach to barbecue has been shaped by what he learned in the classroom at Reed, as well as by the meals he cooked and ate there. It’s an approach that has helped expand Americans’ repertoire of outdoor cooking—from burgers and dogs, to satay and bulgogi.

“My barbecue books are what they are because of my Reed education,” he says. “It’s that whole thing about context and connection, and seeing a particular activity in the context of Western civilization or human civilization, and then the connections: they do it in Japan this way, they do it in Korea that way, and in Afghanistan this way.”

The idea of writing about the cultures of barbecue, instead of just chronicling recipes, was an “epiphany,” he says, that hit him one fall day in 1994 as he sat out in his backyard. “I liken it metaphorically to hearing the words ‘Follow the fire,’” he says. “I would travel the world’s barbecue trail, studying how people grill in different countries and giving great recipes—but more importantly, looking at barbecue as a prism through which to view culture.”