Last Tuesday morning, Steven Raichlen was sitting at a table at Bistro Bis, a clean-lined contemporary French restaurant on Capitol Hill, looking over the menu. He ordered two over-easy eggs, Lyonnaise potatoes, country ham and whole-wheat toast, which he requested well toasted.
With his thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, full goatee, round lenses, and, on this day, his pink (pink? for a barbecue guy?) untucked, cuffs-rolled, long-sleeved shirt, Raichlen seemed like a relaxed combination of professor and aging hippie. The look fits him like bark on brisket.
Perhaps the biggest name in the smoking arts, Raichlen, 59, is in the barbecue world, but not of it. He grew up in Baltimore, hardly a barbecue capitol. (“Maryland steamed crabs — that’s what I want for my last meal.”) He doesn’t compete on the barbecue circuit. He is known by his name alone, no “Guru” or “Doctor” or other puffed-up honorific common in the ’cue universe. His manner is mild, and he is as interested in asking questions as he is in answering them — notable traits in a population associated more with braggadocio. Among all the big bellies, his is trim.
But his love for barbecue is undeniable. “There’s an almost mystical quality about it,” he says.
Earlier this year, Raichlen published his first novel, “Island Apart” (Forge Books). “I had a hard time selling the idea to a publisher,” he says. “Everybody said, ‘You’re the barbecue guy.’ ”
Indeed, he was not in town as part of a book tour. Later in the morning, the five-time James Beard Award winner and author of the blockbuster “The Barbecue! Bible” series (4 million copies in print), among other cookbooks, including his latest, “Best Ribs Ever,” would speak at the Library of Congress. His topic: “The Evolution of Barbecue.” A three-page “Science Reference Guide” of books and articles on the topic would accompany the lecture.
“Could you toast this a little more?” Raichlen asked the waiter when his food arrived. (“Growing up, I was a finicky eater,” he said afterward.)
The night before, Raichlen dined at Oyamel where he chatted with chef-owner Jose Andres, who is contributing to a volume Raichlen is writing called “Men Who Cook,” a cookbook for and about men. Raichlen also is working on a book he’s calling “Smoke,” a cultural history and how-to on smoking food.
Raichlen’s books are his calling card. But with his PBS show, “Primal Grill,” three-day classes that he calls Barbecue University and a product line of sauces and grill tools, Raichlen has parlayed his interest in a cooking sub-genre into a certain level of fame. As if on cue:
“Excuse me,” said a middle-aged man eating alone at the table next to ours. “Are you Steven Raichlen?”
Raichlen nodded. “Yes.”
“I just want to tell you that I really appreciate your books,” the man said. “I have learned so much.”
“Thank you,” Raichlen responded.
Raichlen graduated from Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., with a degree in French literature. After graduating, he spent a year in European libraries researching medieval cooking, courtesy of a Watson Foundation fellowship. He received formal culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu. His first two James Beard Awards were for low-fat and vegetarian cookbooks.
Barbecue came to him not as an enthusiast but as an intellectual exercise. “Everything I was interested in came together,” he said, ticking off history, anthropology and cuisine among those interests.
His goal, he said, was not simply to cook barbecue, but to understand it and convey that understanding. “When I came to barbecue, it was this inchoate tradition of, ‘My daddy did it, and I’ll shoot you if you do it differently,’ ” he said. A question propelled his writing: “How would you write a grammar of barbecue?”
To answer the question, Raichlen has traveled to 53 countries to study what he calls “live-fire” cooking. The term is his way of encompassing both grilling and low-and-slow Southern smoking.
His cellphone rang. He glanced at his watch. “Ten-fifteen,” he said to the caller. A half-hour from now, he’ll get picked up for the Library of Congress.
Raichlen is working on a second novel. “My dream since high school was to be a fiction writer,” he said. Barbecue, though, is still in his future. “I’m not leaving barbecue any time soon.”
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