It’s the start of the weekend and Steven Raichlen, author of the best-selling How to Grill and seven other books on barbecuing, is cooking in the backyard. He shows off two huge slabs of special-order grass-fed beef. “In your honor, we’re having a Caveman T-Bone with Hellfire Hot Sauce,” he says. I grunt in pleasure, set aside my cudgel, and bring my low-browed forehead over to his kettle grill and watch as he lights a stack of charcoal. “I thought of this menu because there’s a prehistoric note to it … and we can discuss evolution,” Raichlen says and shoots me a sly look. Cavewoman laughs.
Raichlen’s backyard is a shrine to all that sizzles. Besides the kettle grill, there’s a wood-burning oven, an upright water smoker, a Weber gas grill, a Viking Big Green Egg, a stainless-steel-sheathed Viking Egg, a wood-burning grill, a barrel smoker from Oklahoma made with 16-inch oil pipe, a big ranch kettle grill, another gigantic gas grill, various hibachis, a number of small grills from Asia and a kebab gizmo from the Middle East. “This is nothing compared to my Barbecue University at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado, where I have 30 grills,” he says, showing off.
What do you expect of a man who has made barbecuing his passion for the last 17 years? His book How to Grill is nearing 2 million copies in 15 languages, including Japanese, Russian and Finnish. He hosts Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen on PBS, but in French-speaking Quebec, he’s Le Maître du Grill. In Japan, he’s known for having beaten the legendary Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba on Battle of the Barbecue Gods by cooking plain ol’ BBQ ribs and chicken!
But how does a French-literature major who was born in Japan and who is a student of medieval cooking in Paris end up teaching barbecue to millions not just in Texas, Tennessee and the Carolinas but worldwide? Raichlen says his “grand epiphany” came in November 1994, as he stood on his front porch in Miami. “I realized there are two great simple truths about barbecue: It’s the world’s oldest cooking method, and it’s the world’s most universal method.” With fast-food outlets proliferating, he saw barbecue — a cooking method with roots deep in antiquity — as the last truly regional food.
Planet Barbecue! is his most recent book and proof by recipe. Raichlen visited six continents and 53 countries for his 638-page opus to barbecue, in which he tastes Serbian bacon-grilled prunes, Kenyan grilled crocodile, salt-crusted tri-tip in Uruguay, lemongrass-grilled beef in Vietnam, baby back ribs in Bali and kebabs from Moscow to Capetown. “I asked myself, ‘Why this passion for grilling? Because people like to play with fire? Because it just tastes so damn good — the way the high dry heat caramelizes the meat protein and the plant sugars?’ ”
Maybe, he realized, it’s because we owe barbecue a huge debt. “Barbecue begat civilization,” Raichlen says. It made us brainy. Literally.
Planet Barbecue! opens with Raichlen at Prehisto Parc, a wacky theme park in southwestern France with life-size Neanderthal statues. As it turns out, our ancestors, who showed up 130,000 years ago, were pretty mean grillers. Where had they learned? Like we all do — from the family. Thank Homo erectus, the first human ancestor to cook meat over a live fire between 1.5 million and 800,000 years ago.
Pregrilling man had a giant jaw, giant teeth and a very small brain, Raichlen notes. No wonder: All our physical energy went into chewing tough game. “Once we started eating meat cooked over a fire, the jaw shrinks, the teeth shrink, the tongue becomes more agile and the brain triples in size in a couple hundred thousand years,” Raichlen says. Unfortunately, humans didn’t know how to make fire way back then, so somebody had to stay home to tend the fires (usually set off by lightning strikes or volcano eruptions) — hence the modern division of labor.
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Raichlen looks up startled, runs out to the fire, stokes the coals and fans off some loose ash, then slaps the two T-bones on the fire — not on a grill grate, but directly on the embers. I gasp. Four minutes later, when the steaks begin to bleed, he turns them. When they’re done, he dusts the T-bones for ash, then sets them aside while he puts a cast-iron pan full of olive oil on the coals and cooks a huge mound of chopped garlic, cilantro, jalapeños and poblano peppers. This he throws on top of the steaks. We chew. Silence ensues as Homo sapiens enjoy.