Face Time: Steven Raichlen

BBQ pro, rib man, baltimore native

July 20, 2012

Born in Japan and raised in Baltimore, Steven Raichlen took his French literature degree and somehow turned into one of the world’s foremost experts on barbecue. The host of PBS’ “Primal Grill” and author of 28 cookbooks — including “The Barbecue Bible” and his latest, “Best Ribs Ever” ($14, Workman Publishing) — will discuss the history of firing up the grill at a lecture Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building (First St. SE, between Independence Ave. and East Capitol St.; 202-707-1205).

How’d you get from French lit to barbecue pit?
To make a long story short, when I graduated from Reed [College], I won a Watson Fellowship. I proposed to study medieval cooking in Europe. I studied the intersection of cooking, history and culture. I’ve been doing it ever since.

How soon after fire was created did man and woman figure out how to barbecue?
I would say it was simultaneous. My theory how it happened — we’re talking about 1.8 million years ago — is that a forest fire swept through the woods, caught a bison, somebody tasted it and then somebody uttered the first grunt of gastronomical pleasure.

Yeah, there’s something primal for us — millennia later — about barbecuing, isn’t there?
The book I’m on tour with now is “Best Ribs Ever.” The rib is the most iconic and most primal of all cuts. It’s gnawing meat off a bone. What’s more caveman?

Why do some towns not have good ’cue?
As Topol would have said in “Fiddler on the Roof” — tradition. Great barbecue is not meant to be available everywhere. It’s local and regional. I don’t go to Boston, to New York to eat barbecue. It’s one of our last local and regional foods.

Is there barbecue history in D.C.?
George Washington was a big barbecue devotee. He writes about barbecue in his diaries, including one that took place in Alexandria for three days. And when the cornerstone of the Capitol was laid, they celebrated with a barbecue on the Mall.

You grew up in Baltimore. Is there a Baltimore specialty?
Pit beef, and it’s centered around Pulaski Highway. It’s a piece of chop round, grilled over charcoal, thinly sliced and served with horseradish on a kaiser roll. If you think about the 20 great regional barbecue dishes in North America, I’d say pit beef is one.

This time of year, everyone wants to grill corn. How do you do it?
There is only one right way: With the husk off. Cooking with the husk on is like having an intimate act through a protective membrane.

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