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Chefs, Pitmasters, and Personalities

Barbecue Hall of Fame: Acceptance Speech

On October 3, the American Royal Association announced the 2015 class of inductees to the Barbecue Hall of Fame. And I was lucky enough to be one of them. The formal induction ceremony took place on the main stage of the American Royal World Series of Barbecue® event at Arrowhead Stadium.

I certainly was in good company. My fellow inductees were Big Green Egg founder, Ed Fisher, and Kansas City Baron of Barbecue, Paul Kirk.

Ed Fisher, Steven Raichlen, and Paul Kirk

So many of you shared your congratulations and good wishes with me on Facebook, Twitter, and BarbecueBible.com, I thought I would share something with you: my remarks at the induction ceremony.

Thank you, American Royal, for this enormous honor. That it takes place in Kansas City, the Mecca of Planet Barbecue, makes the honor even more meaningful.

As I look out at you tonight, I’m reminded of the words of Sir Isaac Newton:

     “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

And as I stand here tonight, I can’t help but marvel at how I got here.

Unlike most of you, I did not grow up on barbecue. I did not descend from a long line of pit masters. No smokers burned in my backyard. When I was growing up, “barbecue” meant a flimsy open grill filled with charcoal and lit with gasoline (which once took the paint off the side of our house). Barbecue sauce was what you marinated the meat in—how else would you get that burnt, coal black crust? The first time I tasted ribs at Gates and burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s, they came as revelation.

My father wanted me to become a doctor. When I majored in French literature, the poor man questioned my sanity. When I announced I wanted to become a food writer, my family figured I’d starve financially, but at least I’d never go hungry. When I thought about writing my first book, my mentor—the French cooking authority Anne Willan—told me, “Steven, you’ll never make a living writing cookbooks.”

Well, like any rebellious kid, I made it my life’s work to prove them wrong.

Like many of us, I thought that possessing a Y chromosome made me a master griller. It wasn’t until I started traveling Planet Barbecue and writing books about grilling that I realized how little I really knew.

So I want to tell you 10 things I’ve learned in my 20 years writing about barbecue.

  1. Barbecue is ancient. 1.8 million years ago ancient. That’s when a distant human ancestor called Homo erectus made an astonishing discovery: that you could roast meat over a wood fire. Barbecue was the first cooking and its invention led to an incredible evolutionary chain reaction that gave us our large brains, our agile mouths, the gift of speech, our social organization, and even the division of labor. Man is the only animal that cooks and shares his food around a table.
  2. Barbecue is universal. My travels on Planet Barbecue have taken me to 53 countries on 6 continents. I haven’t made it to Antarctica—at least not yet—but I hear Russian scientists at a research base there grill a mean shashlik in minus 40 degree weather.
  3. Barbecue is fiercely local. Think of Santa Maria tri-tip (any Californians out there?). Or Cornell chicken. Even here in Kansas City, where barbecue is ecumenical enough to include brisket, ribs, pork shoulder, and chicken, it’s still local—characterized by an intense wood smoke flavor and a thick sweet barbecue sauce. And in an age with a Starbucks on virtually every street corner, it comforts me to know to know that there is still one American food that varies from town to town and region to region and remains decisively local.
  4. You can grill or smoke everything. I mean everything. In my travels around Planet Barbecue I’ve eaten grilled octopus in Greece, kangaroo in Australia, sheep’s intestines in Uruguay, chicken blood in the Philippines, and nori seaweed in Korea. I’d mention one of Japan’s national dishes: grilled bean curd with miso barbecue sauce—but with this crowd, I don’t dare utter the word “tofu.”
  5. Barbecue isn’t a noun. Or a verb. It isn’t a piece of equipment (the so-called barbecue grill). It isn’t a cooking technique—low and slow with plenty of wood smoke. It isn’t a meal cooked and eaten outdoors. Or a public or civic celebration. Barbecue isn’t Texas beef, or Carolina pulled pork, or Kansas City brisket or spareribs. It’s all of those things and activities and it’s the story of humanity itself.
  6. Barbecue requires low heat and lots of patience. Grilling demands high heat and speed. Confuse them at your own peril.
  7. The minute you get into barbecue, you want to share it with others. And once you get really good at barbecue, you want to want to lord it over your neighbors. That’s the origin of barbecue competitions, like the Kansas City Royal.
  8. But no matter how often and hard we compete, we’re all brothers. Time and again, I’ve watched one team share their meat or pit with another when the latter had a delivery delay or experienced a smoker malfunction.
  9. However good you are, you don’t grill or barbecue alone. It takes teamwork. And that team includes your spouse. In our house, and I suspect in many of yours, it’s my wife who picks the date, selects the guests, plans the menu, does the shopping, does the prep, sets the table, and does the clean up. I waltz over to the grill and burn a few steaks. Who’s the real master?
  10. No one eats barbecue alone. We may cook to show off or compete or express our creativity. But the bottom line is that we do it to feed the people we love.

I’d like to leave you with one final thought. Where your food comes from matters as much as how you smoke it. When I started writing about barbecue 20 years ago, people spoke of their wood and their pits, their seasonings and techniques. The one thing missing from the discussion was the source of the meat. The new generation of barbecue masters demands local beef, heritage pork, wild seafood, and organic chicken and vegetables. We want to start with clean raw materials and animals raised humanely—and without antibiotics or growth hormones. If we start demanding better ingredients, the food industry will follow.

Thank you! Kansas City rocks!

These ribs are the next best thing to winning the bronze trophy. Get the recipes:
Kansas City-Style Spareribs
Sweet-and-Smoky Barbecue Sauce