Steven Raichlen

The grill-master novelist

By
October 4, 2012

“I’m a guy; I’ve got the Y chromosome. We love to set stuff on fire.” This is the Steven Raichlen you know and love. But the dean and founder of Barbecue University has another side.

Raichlen got his graduate degree in French literature and studied at famed French culinary schools, including La Varenne and Le Cordon Bleu. He was Boston Magazine’s restaurant reviewer, GQ’s wine and spirits columnist, and wrote cookbooks even before tapping into the barbecue zeitgeist. His 28 cookbooks have earned five James Beard awards and three IACP cookbook awards. He’s starred in three cooking shows, including “Primal Grill.” He beat the Iron Chef.

But at last Raichlen has done what he’d dreamed of doing for years: he’s written Island Apart, a novel of love, loss, redemption, and really good food.

How many grills do you own?
A dozen here in Martha’s Vineyard, a dozen or 15 or so in Miami. Then we have about 30 grills at Barbecue University. They each do different things. A smoker cooks in a very different way than a charcoal grill, and you can’t smoke on a gas grill. If you want to get dinner quickly, a gas grill is not a bad thing to use. We have a wood-burning grill. When we have company, it’s dramatic. I love hibachis at dinner parties. You put ‘em in the center of the table and pull hot food off the table.

Steven Raichlen

Most people think of you as macho meat guy Steve Raichlen, but you’re a real Renaissance man, including studies in French literature and French cuisine. Which came first?
French literature came first, and the culinary was accidental. When I graduated from Reed College, I won a Watson Foundation Fellowship for a year’s study of medieval cooking in Europe. It couldn’t be a strictly academic project, and it had to be out of the country and not solely affiliated with a university.

How does one study medieval cooking?
I took a multipronged approach — I visited the rare-books collections in the Bodley and Oxford and Bibliothèque Nationale, and to get in the zeitgeist of medieval cooking, I visited castle and monastery kitchens and wineries.

I think my dad was pulling his hair out when I got a degree in French lit, but it led me to other things. The Watson got me doing food and writing about food. I worked at La Varenne for a year, traveled all over, then moved back to Boston in 1977 and became the Paris program director in the United States. This whole French-lit thing has been an odd leitmotif in my life.

So where does barbecue fit in?
The barbecue happened in November of 1994. I remember where I was sitting, what I was wearing — it was one of those crystalline moments when you realize, “This is an idea that’s going to change the course of my life.” It was both simple and profound: grilling is the oldest and most universal cooking method, but it’s done differently everywhere. Wouldn’t it be cool to travel around the world and write about barbecue and grill in different cultures? That was the birth of The Barbecue Bible, the birth of the whole series.

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You write about barbecue, but there’s more to it: a sense of food as social anthropology.
Recipes are my Trojan horse. You’ve got to have them so people will buy the cookbook, but there’s a much more interesting story to tell. I make constant reference to history and culture.

I think there is a reason the whole world has such a visceral and emotional response to grilled and barbecued food. There’s the spectacle and ceremony of cooking over live fire, how fabulous it tastes, but more fundamentally, we have this ancestral memory — that moment where a distant human ancestor called Homo erectus discovered you could cook food.

There’s the social aspect, the sitting around the fire, involved in communal meals, cooperative activities, some portion staying home to tend the fire, the others going out to hunt and gather. It’s everything that makes us human; it’s why there’s an almost sacred, reverential kind of feeling, the emotion it stirs in us.

As someone who views what we eat as a cultural signifier, what does the way we eat now tell you?
It fills me with both hope and despair. The hope comes from the locavore movement, the made-from-scratch movement, the organic and natural-food movement. The despair piece of it comes from the increasing power and muscle of agribusiness and fast food, the rampant obesity rates, the way agribusiness has co-opted so many of our elected officials to the point where ketchup is considered a vegetable. As a culture, we’ve got this crazy schizophrenia.

Humanity is at an interesting crossroads. Once, everything we did was connected to the world we lived in. We used to know where our food came from because we grew it or raised it or killed it or cooked it. Now we relate to the world through a screen. We have more access to information and are more disconnected. I don’t make value judgments about that; it’s just the way it is.

Certainly, we’re evolving. I’m glad I knew a pre-computer and pre-digital world. I’m also glad that my kids and the next generation have this incredible access to information we didn’t have. I guess I would rather have the revolution be a digital revolution than a Bolshevik revolution.

What did you eat growing up? Was barbecue big on the menu when you were a kid?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. On a good day, I ate what are still some of my favorite foods on the planet: Maryland steamed clams.

My grandparents and great-grandparents were Eastern European Jewish cooks. They made fabulous food for 30 people. I had a Sephardic aunt on the other side of the family who introduced me to a different set of flavors.

I can’t say the food we ate at home inspired me, except to want more when I got out on my own. My mother was a ballet dancer. She had a lot of issues with food. My interest in food was a matter of self-interest.

First came academic interest. But even as I was doing my French-lit thing and reading Beowulf in Old English, to make money I was working at Otto’s Delicatessen, which made its own sausage and had an incredible cheese department. I worked at the Commons, our [college] cafeteria, worked in the hospital kitchen . . . there was always this twin fascination with food and fiction.

How do the two inform each other?
There’s so much great fiction that involves food. When I was writing Planet Barbecue!, I remembered back to my Iliad days. Homer had included some passages of preparing beef for sacrifice and feeding the troops before battle. The cattle were brought in, and they took the leg meat and wrapped it in fat and salt and grilled it. They doused it with olive oil and wine — and you knew the wine at the time was retsina. You don’t get much tougher or more macho than writing about the Battle of Troy, but there in the middle of it is a food description that’s good and concrete enough that you can make it. I’ve done it, and it’s fabulous.

And now, you’ve written Island Apart.
I have wanted to write a novel ever since I was in college; I put it aside to pursue a career in food writing. It’s very satisfying and good for me, but I wondered if I could really do it.

How does it differ from writing cookbooks?
It felt very different to me. Writing a cookbook is hard work because of the research and testing involved, but if you change a recipe in chapter 2, it doesn’t impact chapter 16. In a novel, if you change a detail in chapter 2, that can have an impact on the whole book.

So what was the writing process like? Was it fast and hot, like grilling, or low and slow, like barbecue?
It was a combination of both. I wrote the first draft in six months; then, in subsequent revisions, I’d leave the book aside for nine months, work on it intensely and put it aside, and work on another project. Fiction is like making sourdough bread. You can’t just grind it out. You have to let it sit and ferment.

What do your barbecue fans say about the novel?
There’s been some crossover from my grilling constituency, but a lot of hardcore barbecuers are not the sentimental beach-read type.

But who can resist your food descriptions? And I like how your characters connect through cooking.
I knew when I started writing that food and cooking would be a major theme and a major way my characters communicate. In the Bible, the ancient Greek and Roman myths, there’s always the scene of the stranger who comes to town. There’s an injunction to bring him in and feed him a hot meal before you even learn his story. Nurturing and nourishing is when humanity is at its best.

Chappaquiddick Clams Casino

Food plays a delicious part of Steven Raichlen’s novel, Island Apart, but the book contains no recipes. Raichlen created a few of the foodstuffs mentioned, however, like this locavore version of the clams casino.

“The Hermit chopped some ramps and venison bacon and poured a little oil into a cast-iron skillet. The scent of sizzling wild garlic filled the kitchen. While the ramps and bacon browned, he took a stale loaf of bread and grated it on an old-fashioned box grater. He added the crumbs and some crumbled dried herbs and browned them with the ramps and bacon . . . Next, the Hermit produced a wire basket filled with seaweed and Cape Pogue Bay littlenecks. . . . He handed Claire a bowl and an old butter knife. He showed her how to tuck a littleneck into her palm, hinge towards the base of her thumb, then gently pull the blade between the shells with her fingers. She worked over the bowl to catch the juices, and after a few tries, got the hang of it. . . . The shucked clams went on a shallow bed of salt in a large battered metal pie pan. The Hermit had Claire spoon some crumb mixture in each clamshell and place a curl of venison bacon on top. He placed the clams in the oven just long enough to brown the topping. Soon Claire was eating the Chappaquiddick version of clams casino, washed down with a fresh bottle of sarsaparilla.”

— From Chapter 16, “Not What I Expected”

Chappaquiddick Clams Casino
Makes 24 clams, enough to serve 4 to 6 as an appetizer or 2 as a light main course

6 strips smokehouse bacon
4 ramps or large scallions (see Note)
1 garlic clove, minced (optional)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus oil for drizzling
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1½ teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ cups toasted breadcrumbs (preferably homemade)
24 fresh littleneck clams
Coarse salt for baking the clams

Make the stuffing: Cut 3 strips of bacon crosswise into thin slivers. Cut each of the remaining 3 strips of bacon crosswise into 8 pieces and set aside. Trim the ramps by cutting off the furry roots and dark green leaves. Finely chop. If using scallions, trim off the root end and thinly slice crosswise. Mince the garlic if using.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the slivered bacon, ramps (or scallions and garlic), oregano, basil, lemon zest, and plenty of black pepper. Cook over medium-high heat until the mixture is browned, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon. Stir in the breadcrumbs and cook until lightly browned, 2 minutes more. Set the stuffing aside.

Scrub the clams, discarding any with gapped shells that fail to close when tapped. Shuck the clams, working over a bowl catch the juices. Discard the top shells and loosen the clams from the bottom shell with your shucking knife. Arrange the clams on the half shell in pie pans or a baking sheet filled with a ¼-inch layer of coarse salt (this holds the clam shells upright).

Strain the clam juices into the stuffing mixture and stir to mix. Spoon the stuffing into the shells over the clam meat. Top each with a piece of bacon. The clams can be prepared several hours ahead to this stage, covered and refrigerated.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Bake the clams until the bacon pieces and crumb mixture are sizzling and browned, 6 to 10 minutes. Serve the Chappaquiddick Clams Casino at once with sarsaparilla or dry white wine.

Note: Ramps are a member of the allium family — a sort of wild green onion with a white bulbous base tapering to spindly green leaves. The flavor suggests garlic, green onion, and leek. In season in the spring, ramps are available at specialty grocers and via mail order (one good source is earthy.com). If unavailable, you can approximate the flavor by combining scallions and garlic. The Hermit uses homemade venison bacon; you’ll get great results with a true smokehouse bacon like Nueske’s.

Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and to Culinate.

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