Hi, everyone. I’m Steven Raichlen. You may know me through my books such as “The Barbecue! Bible,” “How to Grill,” or “Planet Barbecue.” Or through my TV shows including “Project Fire,” “Project Smoke” and “Primal Grill.”
I am honored to be Hearth, Patio and Barbecue’s (HPBA) #WhyIGrill ambassador for National Barbecue Month and to be a part of encouraging barbecue enthusiasts of all skill levels nationwide to join together in taking part in the first “Back to Barbecue Day” on Saturday, May 23. Even as this health crisis takes its toll on everyone’s lives, I’m excited to join with you in pledging to fire up my grill on “Back to Barbecue Day” in celebration of live-fire cooking.
For the last 25 years, grilling has been my passion and my profession. I’ve visited more than 60 countries on six continents to document how people cook over live fire. I’ve grilled with kebab wallas in New Delhi and asadores in Argentina. I’ve manned schwenkers (hanging grills) in Germany and hibachis in Japan. I’ve hosted hundreds of TV shows on PBS in French and even Italian. I battled and, to my amazement, defeated the Iron Chef in Tokyo and have taught thousands of students how to grill at my Barbecue University.
So you might think I have a ready answer to the simple question, “Why do I grill?”
The fact is that, while I routinely devote 50-plus hours a week to live-fire cooking, I’ve rarely stopped to think about why I grill. So thank you, HPBA, for making me ponder the why of an activity I’ve done virtually on a daily basis for the better part of my adult life.
You may be surprised to learn that I did not grow up in a barbecue family. I didn’t even know what true barbecue was until I was 22 while I was touring as a translator for a French chef. Someone took me to a restaurant called Bodacious Bar-B-Que in Longview, Texas. It was love at first bite but I still had a lot of cooking, eating and writing to do before I returned to the source of the smoke.
I’ve always been fascinated with — make that obsessed by — fire. As a kid, I had pyromaniacal tendencies. My first encounter with law enforcement involved a little (actually, not so little) “experiment” with fire. Growing up, my mother was the family grill mistress. She lit the charcoal with gasoline (gasoline!) and charred steaks black as bitumen. The meat in the center still had a heartbeat and thus was born the “Pittsburgh rare” steak.
I majored in French literature in college and afterwards spent two years researching medieval cooking in Europe. Along the way, I learned how to cook at a prestigious cooking school. I didn’t grill back then, but I did think a lot about the intersection of food, history and culture. To some extent, that intersection has guided my life’s work.
My baptism by fire came through a simple idea and the book it inspired. The idea was this: While grilling is the world’s oldest and most universal cooking method — practiced since the Stone Age by virtually every culture on earth — everywhere it’s done differently. I traveled what I came to call Planet Barbecue to write the book that launched my career “The Barbecue! Bible.” I’ve been traveling and grilling ever since and the best thing about my job is that I still learn something new every day.
So what is it about grilling that has kept me enthralled for all these years? It’s for the same reasons why I grill, why we all grill and why we’ve been grilling since ape became man.
I love the crackle of burning logs, the mesmerizing flicker of flames and how grilling over live fire involves all your senses. I love the look of food cooked over live fire; how it sounds, smell and feels. And, above all, how it tastes.
In this digital age, where our actions are governed by algorithms, grilling demands physical interaction and total focus. It’s a constant dance of dodging the flames, waltzing the food from hot spots to cool spots and of achieving the perfect doneness without overcooking. When you grill, you definitely don’t set it and forget it, and that, my friends, is a blessing, not an inconvenience.
The leaping flames, the rising smoke and the sizzle of meat on fire-heated metal. I enjoy watching the way people instinctively gather around a fire. When you grill, you step on stage and your guests become your audience.
Everything. Boil or bake a chicken and it tastes like, well, chicken. Grill that chicken and it acquires crispy charred skin and complex smoke flavors. The same holds true whether for steak, fish, vegetables, bread or even dessert.
No one gathers around a stove to watch a pot of soup boil or a loaf of bread bake in the oven. Fire up your grill and people will congregate. It’s a party whether you’re cooking for four or 400. I realize that, because of the health crisis, we may not all be together in person this National Barbecue Month. That’s one more reason I love HPBA’s “Back to Barbecue Day” on May 23. If we can’t all be together in person, we can be virtually together by pledging to cook out that day.
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