Steven Raichlen, barbecue maestro, is eating granola. We’re seated for a second consecutive day at a table at Bistro Bis, a contemporary French restaurant on Capitol Hill.
During our interview the previous morning, he put away two over-easy eggs, Lyonnaise potatoes, country ham and toast. Maybe he’s full from last night’s dinner. Attending an alumni gathering from his alma mater, Reed College, Raichlen, 59, prepared recipes from his many cookbooks. Dishes included bacon-grilled shrimp, baby back ribs and vegetarian dips such as salsa verde with grilled tomatillos and chile peppers.
Raichlen was in town to give a lecture at the Library of Congress called “The Evolution of Barbecue,” which, more or less, credited grilled and smoked meats for creating civilization, advancing human intelligence and, as I recall, inventing baseball. I could be wrong about that last one.
Raichlen is comfortable in Washington, having grown up in nearby Baltimore and having written regularly for The Washington Post Food section in the late 1980s.
Raichlen is Jewish, and although he isn’t particularly observant, he does not cook pork around the house out of deference to his wife, who does not eat the meat. Pretty amazing when you consider that pork is easily the most-cooked barbecue meat. But, then, Raichlen has adapted to food, it seems, throughout his life.
A self-described “finicky eater,” Raichlen was not raised in a particularly food savvy house. He began learning about food in college, where he worked in a shop that made its own sausages. Living in a co-op, he and his housemates made their own beer and yogurt.
His food knowledge deepened considerably when he studied some 100 medieval cookbooks in Latin and Middle English as part of a Watson Foundation grant to study 14th and 15th century cooking. He says food back then was intensely spiced and highly processed, the latter, he surmises, because everybody had bad teeth. A similarity between chefs then and now? “Food as theater,” he says.
A major trend he sees is the continued growth of barbecue and a co-mingling of its approaches.
“Europe is having this love affair with barbecue,” he says. “I have mixed feelings about that. I sure don’t want to see the Starbuckification of barbecue.”
For its part, the United States, he says, is accepting international barbecue techniques, citing the popularity of the Indian tandoor, Turkish kabobs, the Brazilian steakhouse, Jamaican jerk chicken.
“It’s the way we live now,” he says. “Anything local becomes global.”
Another trend, he says, is that Americans are rediscovering cooking over charcoal and wood as opposed to gas. “I think charcoal will continue to grow, more natural lump, more wood,” he says.
He sees grilling becoming “an extension of the kitchen,” with entire meals cooked on the grill. Vegetarian cooking on the grill, he says, is also catching on in a big way.
As we concluded our conversation, Raichlen offered a few tips for the backyard barbecuer:
1. Follow the 30 Percent Rule. Never fill your grill more than 70 percent, so you have room to maneuver the foods, moving them around in case of flare-ups or because some foods are getting done faster than others.
2. Sauce meats right at the end or serve the sauce on the side. Don’t sauce throughout the cooking process.
3. Never let meats come to room temperature before grilling. Cook meat cold.
4. Keep your grill clean. Clean it after every time you cook.
5. Use a three-tier fire. On one end, pile coals for a hot heat. Next to that pile, stack fewer coals for a milder heat and longer cooks. Keep the third section empty of coals to allow for foods to cook indirectly or to stay warm.
As we wrap up our conversation, Raichlen asks the waiter if the restaurant sells its granola. “It’s excellent,” he says. No, the waiter replies, but offers to give him some.
Raichlen happily accepts. One can’t help wondering if the barbecue master will start experimenting when he gets home, if maybe smoked granola will be a recipe in one of his upcoming books.