By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
It was a "simple but profound realization" about cooking with fire that led Steven Raichlen to become one of the world's preeminent experts on all things barbecue.
"Grilling is the oldest cooking method and the most universal," said Raichlen, who said that dawning awareness led him to writing his 1998 bestseller, The Barbecue Bible, a compendium of recipes and techniques from around the world. That, in turn, led him to establish his Barbecue University and three TV series for PBS, including Project Smoke, which airs at 3 p.m. Saturdays on Panhandle PBS.
Raichlen will appear in Amarillo on May 24 for a 7 p.m. dinner and discussion of his latest cookbook, Project Smoke. The dinner, catered by top Amarillo restaurant Tyler's Barbeque and featuring a menu inspired by Raichlen, will be held at a private home at Tradewinds Airport. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Mike Fuller, an Amarillo singer-songwriter and program director of FM90, will provide music. Tickets are $75 each, including an autographed copy of Project Smoke, or $50 without the book;
only a limited number of tickets are still available. UPDATE: The event is sold out.
The chef and author said he found barbecue and grilling to be "a subject of great fascination."
"It's at the intersection of all the things that turn me on — travel, history, culture, anthropology, food, obviously."
The smell of food cooking over a fire awakens primal memories, Raichlen said.
"I think there's a very ancient memory. If you do a little reading about human evolution, about 1.8 million years ago, there was a very dramatic change in the very primitive beings we were and the more human-like beings we became," Raichlen said. "Scientists believe that happened when Homo erectus learned how to cook with fire."
That led, Raichlen said, to more communal living and more communal cooking — building blocks of society as we know it.
"Any time someone lights up a grill and you smell the wood smoke, it evokes a primal, ancestral memory in all of us," Raichlen said. "It's certainly no accident there's so much passion around grilling and smoking in a way that you don't find around other cooking methods."
With Project Smoke, Raichlen is moving from grilling and barbecuing to what he says is their "essence" — smoking.
"I had touched on smoking in my previous books ... but there's so much more to the world of smoking than just barbecue," he said. "I wanted to write about foods and beverages that I hadn't done in my previous books. I also think we're at a funny moment in American food. The smoking moment has come.
"For a nation obsessed with barbecue, we're no longer content to eat it in restaurants and watch it on TV. We do it at our own homes," Raichlen said. "Now there are inexpensive smokers and it's easier to do in your own backyard. It used to be a very regional phenomenon — Texas, the South, the Carolinas — but now it's going mainstream."
Raichlen — who last appeared in Amarillo at a 2010 invitational steak cook-off hosted by Panhandle PBS — was full of praise for the Lone Star State's barbecue greats.
"It's certainly some of the most serious and delectable barbecue in the world," Raichlen said. "I love brisket. I love beef ribs. I love the fact that it's all down to business. The seasoning is kept really simple, the sauce is optional.
"It's really all about the meat and the smoke."
For tickets, call 806-371-5479 or visit panhandlePBS.org.
Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/chipchandlerwriter on Facebook.