It’s noon on the Ile de Re, France, and I’m about to experience eclade de moules, mussels grilled on a bed of flaming pine needles. It’s 2 p.m. in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and I’ve turned my back on the Angkor Wat temple complex to feast on coconut-grilled corn from a gritty stall in the parking lot. It’s midnight in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and I’m watching a gaucho grill master carve dinosaur-sized costelas (beef ribs) cooked on a military-strength rotisserie. Why do I write? Because nothing makes me feel more alive than when I’m in the field doing research—in this case for a book called Planet Barbecue.
Research? Barbecue? For the thousandth time, I wonder how a guy with a degree in French literature came to write books on global grilling. And for the thousandth time, I thank some Promethean deity of smoke and fire that I live in a time and place where a guy can actually make a living through such a singular literary endeavor.
From my first days out of college, I’ve written about the intersection of food and culture—first as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow (on a grant to study medieval cooking in Europe), then as the restaurant critic for Boston magazine, wine and spirits editor for GQ, and food writer for publications as diverse as Esquire and National Geographic Traveler. For me, food has always been a window into culture—of both present and past.
Which explains what I’m doing in a dank dark cave, Pech Merle, in the southwest of France, gazing at images of woolly mammoths, reindeer, and aurochs—animals our prehistoric ancestors hunted and grilled on fires they could start as effectively as modern man does with the push of a gas grill igniter. I’m here to research the primal roots of grilling. It turns out that roasting meat with live fire—barbecue—had a profound effect on human evolution, shaping our family and social structure, the way we think and communicate, and even the size and form of the human face. I have come to believe that humankind was born around a grill, that barbecue begat civilization.
To document the world of live fire cooking firsthand requires considerable travel. In the course of researching Planet Barbecue, I visited 53 countries on six continents. (Another compelling reason why I write.) Travel with a focus—global grilling, for example—transforms you from a tourist to an insider and allows you to go deep into the culture. Barbecue enables me to write about the subjects I find most fascinating—history, anthropology, evolution, literature, travel, and of course, food.
People think I write cookbooks. Yes, my books contain recipes, and my test kitchen staff and I go to great effort to make sure that recipes from around the world work well on a North American grill. But while recipes may be why most people buy my books, they’re only part of the reason why I write them. What matters even more to me than the authenticity of the recipes (and that matters a lot) is the story the recipes tell—about people, places, cultures, and who we are as a species and where we fit in the world.
Steven Raichlen is the author of 29 books, including the new Planet Barbecue (Workman, May). His next book will be a novel.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's enewsletter for Cookbooks.