Around the Grill - One-on-One with Steven Raichlen
Who is Steven Raichlen?
Do you really need to ask? If you are a grilling fanatic you have surely heard of the Barbecue Bible, if you do not own it already. Steven Raichlen is the award-winning author behind that book as well as journalist, cooking instructor and the host of Primal Grill. What started as an idea to show people how different cultures grill has erupted into a BBQ empire with books, websites, cooking classes and popular television shows, along with a line of great BBQ Accessories. We are excited to have Mr. Raichlen with us this month for this edition of Around the Grill as we gear up for Memorial Day!
Q&A with TV Host, Author, & Teacher Steven Raichlen
1) How did you get your start in the BBQ industry?
Well, first I got a degree in French literature. Then I became a restaurant critic (for Boston Magazine), wine and spirits columnist (for GQ), and freelance food writer. In 1994, I had the idea to write about how people grill in different countries and cultures. So I started traveling the world’s barbecue trail and working on a book that became The Barbecue Bible. It came out and took off in 1998 and I was hooked.
2) It's pretty apparent that you are a fan of charcoal grilling. What do you find to be the greatest advantages of using charcoal over other fuel types?
It burns hotter than gas. It’s easy to smoke with charcoal and almost impossible with propane. And grilling with charcoal is all about the process—each time you use it, you get the primal thrill of making and playing with fire.
3) In the video for the Caveman T-bone you say grillers should always use lump charcoal. What makes that type of charcoal superior than the stuff you would traditionally use?
Lump charcoal is pure wood. Charcoal briquettes contain coal dust, petroleum, borax, and other chemicals—in other words, they’re anything but pure. In theory, the chemical taste burns off once the charcoal is fully lit, but often it transfers to the food.
4) You have a show on PBS called Primal Grill, you're an award-winning author and teacher. What's your favorite part of your job & why?
I’m a writer first and foremost - writing is the favorite part of my job. What’s best about my job is that it’s so varied—one day I might be doing research or lecturing at the Library of Congress. The next, I might be grilling over coconut shell charcoal in Cambodia or teaching how to smoke brisket at Barbecue University at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. What I love about my career is that it engages my mind, hands, wanderlust, intellectual and cultural curiosity, and sense of aesthetics — I love the historical and cultural aspects of barbecue, but I also love the people I meet and the opportunity to learn something new every day. Plus I also eat really well.
5) You have also released a line of BBQ Accessories. For you, what is the one BBQ tool that you simply cannot live without?
That would be tongs — in particular my spring-loaded Lumatong, equipped with 20 inch long rolled steel arms to keep you far from the fire and with a flashlight built into one arm so you can see what you’re grilling at night.
6) You have some very interesting recipes. I especially enjoyed the Tenderloin Cheesesteak. How do you come up with your recipe ideas?
Numerous ways. Many are inspired by my travels (to 53 countries on 6 continents to date). Others by a particular cut of meat or seasoning. Others by a really cool grill or technique. The cheesesteak was inspired by a wood-burning grill, the Grillery. Wouldn’t it be cool to riff on a Philly cheesesteak — a whole wood grilled tenderloin in place of the French bread, with the peppers, onions, and cheese as a stuffing. The peppers would be fire-roasted poblanos; the onions would be grilled to make them sweet; for cheese, I use an aged provolone.
7) What makes a particular grill superior? What do you look for in a BBQ Grill that makes it stand out?
Most grills are designed with different tasks in mind. For example, gas grills are great at quick direct grilling, but poor for smoking at a low temperature. Smokers do the low and slow thing well, but are hopeless for grilling steaks. When judging a grill, I look for how well it accomplishes the task it was designed to do.
I also look at a grill’s construction (how sturdy and durable it is), its versatility, and its “intelligence.” Was it designed by someone who actually grills or smokes or do good looks seem to be more important than functionality?
8) What's on the horizon for Steven Raichlen? Any upcoming projects you could let us in on?
Several cool projects. The first is the complete redesign of my website—launching this week BarbecueBible.com, with a lot more community interaction and grilling science. The second are some really cool new products in my Best of Barbecue line, including a brand new grill grate oiler and grilling baskets for meatballs and for trout.
Re: books, you may know that I published my first novel last year — Island Apart (Forge). It’s a foodie love story set on Martha’s Vineyard and the paperback is coming out in May. (So is the French edition.)
Finally, I have a book on cooking for men coming out in 2014 and I’m currently working on a book on smoking.
9) Being that Memorial Day is just around the corner, why do you think BBQ is such an important part of the Memorial Day holiday? What makes BBQ so American?
Why Memorial Day? Believe it or not, some people in the Frost Belt put their grills away in winter. (Not that we know anyone like that.) So Memorial Day is when the fair weather returns and the grills come out. As for what makes BBQ so American, I'd say it's in our DNA. Quite literally. Our word barbecue, as I'm sure you know, comes from a native West Indian name for a grill: barbacoa. One of the earliest laws promulgated in the colonies forbade the discharge of firearms at barbecues (even back then we were obsessed by guns and smoked meats). George Washington loved barbecues and wrote about them often in his diaries.
10) What are your plans for Memorial Day? Do you like to grill for family and friends, or would you rather take some "time off", so to speak?
We'll be on Chappaquiddick Island (Martha's Vineyard) for Memorial Day and if we're lucky, we'll have grilled local clams (which I'll dig) and oysters and grilled harpooned swordfish. Too early for local blueberries, but there might be a smoked cherry crisp. I'd say pretty much any time we eat home it involves smoking or grilling. By the way, Chappaquiddick is where my new novel (my first) -- Island Apart (Forge Books) takes place. It's a story of love, loss, redemption, and really good food. The recipe for the smoked clam dip and the smoked turkey are on my web site: www.StevenRaichlenFiction.com.
More From Jason Stutes