If you happen to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History, you’ll find an exhibit on a uniquely American institution: the backyard barbecue.
And if you happen to tour that backyard barbecue exhibit, you will see, next to James Beard’s Complete Book of Barbecue & Rotisserie Cooking (published in 1954), and the Sunset Barbecue Cook Book (1958), a book near and dear to my heart: The Barbecue! Bible, written by yours truly and published by Workman in 1998.
Which makes this the 20th anniversary for the book that got me into barbecue. (Yikes—two decades have passed already?!)
And an unexpected but much appreciated honor for a book that wasn’t supposed to be called Barbecue Bible at all.
So in case you’re wondering, here’s the backstory to the book that changed my life—and I hope changed yours.
The year was 1994. I had recently moved to Miami and written my first book for Workman Publishing, Miami Spice. I was also still writing about high flavor-low fat cooking (does anyone remember those books?) in an effort to remedy a cholesterol problem I developed during my decade as the restaurant critic for Boston Magazine.
It was early November—one of those luminescent days in Miami when the summer humidity is finally gone. If memory serves, I was sitting in an Adirondack chair, wearing a white shirt and blue shorts. Time seemed to slow down, as it does at those mysterious turning points in life. I heard a voice, and it commanded me to “follow the fire.”
Well, maybe it was less of a voice than a sudden realization. That grilling is the world’s oldest and most universal cooking method. But everywhere people grill differently. My mission would be to travel the world’s barbecue trail and document how people grill in different cultures.
I dashed off a book proposal. My publisher, the late visionary Peter Workman, saw the possibilities. A short time later, I had a contract to embark on the greatest writing adventure of my life.
What started as a relatively modest book—1 year, 10 countries, 100 recipes—became an editorial monster. By the time I turned in the manuscript 4 years later, I had traveled more than 150,000 miles on 6 continents, and my modest 100 recipes grew into a 500+ recipe, 556-page behemoth.
Remarkable stops on that journey? There were so many!
In Indonesia, a babi guling (Balinese barbecued whole hog) master handed me the knife to dispatch the suckling pig that would become our dinner. (Apparently a great honor in these parts.)In India, I learned how to slap circles of dough onto the fiery sides of a tandoor (Indian clay barbecue pit) to make the world’s best grilled flatbread—buttery (Eventually, the hair on my arm grew back.)
In Istanbul, I molded chile- and onion-laced minced lamb onto flat metal skewers to make Turkey’s contribution to the world of barbecue: shish kebab.
In Argentina, I watched a grill master clean his grill grate with a brush dipped in salt water—then grill mojecas (crusty sweetbreads), morcilla (blood sausage), and tira de asado (crosscut short rib steaks) to be served with garlicky vinegary
In Mexico, I woke at dawn to unearth cochinita pebil (whole hog slathered with annatto and chiles, wrapped in banana leaves, and roasted in a fire-heated pit underground.)
Everywhere I went, I experienced time-honored grilling techniques and fascinating new ways to cook with live fire. Above all, I learned a lesson that still holds true today: that in the world of barbecue, there’s no such thing as strangers, just friends who haven’t met.
As I look back on The Barbecue! Bible, I see not only how much it changed my grilling, but the world’s.
Writing the book helped me organize a seemingly chaotic body of techniques, traditions, and superstitions into a coherent system, a “language” of barbecue, with its “vocabulary” (basic rubs, marinades, bastes, sauces, and condiments) and “grammar” (the five fundamental grilling techniques—direct grilling, indirect grilling, smoking, spit-roasting, and caveman grilling in the embers).
And if food seems to stick to the grate less than it did in our parents’ day, well, that’s because more and more Americans have adopted Raichlen’s rules for great grilling: “Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated.”
Dishes that once seemed exotic—Brazilian churrasco, Argentinean asado, Italian bistecca alla fiorentina, Indian tandoori, Japanese yakitori, Thai sate—now turn up on restaurant menus and in backyards across America.
And, yes, to the best of my knowledge, The Barbecue! Bible was the first book to chronicle beer can chicken!
The Barbecue! Bible (the exclamation mark was also Peter Workman’s idea) became an international bestseller, and I, quite inadvertently, came to specialize in a field I never quite knew existed: global grilling.
My Public Television shows, like Primal Grill and Project Smoke and Project Fire (plus my French shows in Quebec and new Steven Raichlen Grills Italy show); the barbecuebible.com website, Barbecue University school at the Broadmoor, and my Best of Barbecue grilling accessories and Project Smoke barbecue rubs and sauces—all stemmed from that epiphany I had about grilling in November, 1994. Peter Workman, and my incredible editor, Suzanne Rafer, believed in the project. And here I am today.
One of the paradoxes of being a food writer is that you’re always developing new recipes for future books, rather than returning to old favorites. So as I pause to celebrate this momentous 20th anniversary, I remember some of my favorite dishes from The Barbecue! Bible. Here are my top 10 (although that list may very well change tomorrow):
Catalan grilled tomato bread
Vietnamese basil beef rolls
Uruguayan matambre (sausage- and cheese-stuffed rolled flank steak known as the “hunger killer”)
Poc chuc (Yucatecan brined, grilled pork with pickled onions and fiery salsa)
Onion water lamb chops from Afghanistan
Mustardy chicken yassa from Senegal
Sate lilit (Indonesian fish mousse grilled on lemongrass)
Honey sesame shrimp on the barbie
Dengaku (“tofu on stilts”—Japanese grilled tofu with miso barbecue sauce)
Grilled vegetables in the style of Santa Margherita
Balinese grilled bananas with coconut caramel sauce
I’ll be firing up my grill this month to make them. I hope you will, too!
This anniversary celebration wouldn’t be complete without lifting the curtain on a few foibles and stumbling blocks we had in the process of bringing my gargantuan book into print.
The title: Peter Workman didn’t like my original title for the book—Barbacoa—the word used by the Taino Indians of Hispanola to describe a wooden grate position high over a smoky fire. (Yes, it gave us our word “barbecue,” and yes, the tradition survives in Jamaican jerk.) Instead, Peter proposed a more accessible title: The Barbecue! Bible. A million plus copies—and translations into more than a dozen languages—proved he was right.
The author photo: If you’re old enough to own the first edition of The Barbecue! Bible, you have the only photo ever taken of me without glasses. (I’m extremely nearsighted.) The photographer complained about the reflection of the lenses. Being new to publishing, I gave in. I looked ridiculous. Happily, that changed with the second printing.
The cover food photo: That photo has changed three times over the years—from grilled shrimp to even better-looking grilled shrimp to the plate of ribs on the current edition. I like the new cover the best.
Photography: Believe it or not, the original Barbecue! Bible contained no color photographs. No step-by-step technique shots. No luscious food beauty shots. These were added 10 years ago with the publication of the “new full color edition.”
It’s been an amazing ride, my friends, and in addition to thanking Workman Publishing and my incredible wife, Barbara, I’d like to thank you, dear readers, for making this amazing career in live fire cooking possible. So here’s a solemn promise: I’ll keep writing books to help all of us take our barbecuing and grilling to the next level for as long as I can.
August 15, 2018
Read more: barbecuebible.com