reed magazine logospring2007

BBQ Scholar

  Raichlen samples gyro in Athen's

Raichlen samples gyro, or lamb kebab, at an Athens grill shop called Chubby’s.


After lightning struck, Raichlen pounded out a book proposal in a fever of excitement, and had a contract within two weeks. For the IACP/Julia Child Award-winning The Barbecue! Bible (Workman, 1998), his first foray into the field, he traveled 200,000 miles over four years to catalogue global grilling. Whether you want step-by-step instructions on making Montevidean-style grilled sweetbreads, or to read Raichlen’s theory on why the French don’t grill (it turns out they do, just not in Michelin-starred restaurants), this is the book for you. Following the bible came a techniques-oriented book, How to Grill (Workman, 2000), with full-color illustrations of cutting, pounding, seasoning, and firing meat, seafood, and vegetables, along with information on grills and smokers, a section on fuels, and a guide to obscure and specialized grill toys, such as barbecue mops, kebab baskets, rib racks, and spring-loaded tongs.

“My constituency desires to know how to do stuff, step by step—and more importantly, from a male viewpoint, am I doing it right?” he says. The next books came out in a wave: BBQ USA, a live-fire tour of the nation; Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades; Beer Can Chicken; Raichlen on Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs; and Indoor Grilling. All are shaped by what Raichlen calls his “obsessive” nature: they’re anywhere from 300 to 800 pages long, with hundreds of recipes for putting everything from soup to nuts on the grill. The Barbecue! Bible alone has more than 500 recipes.

“When I get an idea, I tend to push it probably further than it should be pushed,” he admits. His acolytes don’t seem to mind: the series has sold close to four million copies. It’s no wonder Esquire magazine has called Raichlen “America’s master griller.”

Grilling has a primal fascination that other methods don't. Probably the closest thing might be the mystique of bread-baking, but nobody gathers around the oven to watch bread bake.

Barbecue has continued to hold Raichlen’s attention, he says, because it is both primal and culturally specific. “It’s the world’s oldest cooking method,” he says, “and as you study the history of barbecue, you realize that a lot of what makes us human happened over a barbecue pit.” He cites as examples the social organization necessary for creating and maintaining fire, and the physiological changes that resulted from eating grilled meat. “If you’re a primate eating [raw] meat, you chew it for four to five hours,” he says. “That gives you big jaws, big jaw muscles—you don’t have a lot of room for a big brain. When you cook meat, you can do the same amount of chewing in a half an hour, and that liberates a tremendous amount of time, the jaw muscles become smaller, the brain becomes bigger.

“Our ancestors took on the look of modern man with the advent of barbecue,” he concludes. “You can really say that barbecue begat civilization.” And in turn, barbecue was shaped by civilization, evolving into slow-roasted, smoked meat in places where timber was plentiful and populations sparse (North and South America), and small cuts grilled quickly over high heat in cultures where labor was plentiful and fuel scarce (Northeast and Southeast Asia).

Coupled with barbecue’s great antiquity is its near-universality. “People don’t grill everywhere, but they probably grill in three quarters of the countries of the earth,” Raichlen says. “And grilling has a primal fascination that other methods don’t. The closest thing might be the mystique of bread-baking, but nobody gathers around the oven to watch bread bake. Whereas grilling, this act of gathering around the hearth, is hard-wired into our biology. And from a commercial point of view, everybody’s interested in barbecue, so barbecue books tend to sell.”