A Salute to National Barbecue Day

National Barbecue Day

Today is National Barbecue Day—a holiday near and dear to my heart. After all, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life dedicated to barbecue—cooking it, eating it, researching it, writing about it, making TV shows about it, and generally marveling at barbecue’s ability to assuage our hunger, feed our communities, and soothe our souls.

Steven Raichlen and TV crew

If I have a personal Barbecue Day, it would be in November, not May, for that’s when my formal relationship with live fire cooking began. I remember exactly where I was sitting, what I was wearing, the place, the time, and the weather. I was working on a book on low-fat cooking—a far cry from what I do now! Time slowed down, as it does in portentous life moments. I heard a voice, as though from heaven. It gave me a simple order—drum roll, please. “Steven Raichlen—follow the fire.”

Well, actually, it was a bit more prosaic than that. It came in the form of a simple but profound realization: grilling is the world’s oldest and most universal cooking method, but everywhere, it’s done differently. From that moment on, my mission would be to travel the world’s barbecue trail, documenting how people grill in different cultures and countries.

I dashed off a book proposal to my publisher, Peter Workman. The following week, I had a contract. Only then did the magnitude of what I proposed begin to sink in.

How on earth would I travel the planet? How would I find great grill masters in locations as far-flung as Turkey, Japan, and Argentina? How would I persuade them to share their recipes? And how on earth would I pay for my travels?! Thus began the challenge—and adventure—of a lifetime. The result was The Barbecue! Bible.

The Barbecue! Bible - National Barbecue Day

Originally, I envisioned a modest book—10 countries and 100 recipes. I figured I could write it in a year. But the more research I did, the vaster the subject became. It turns out that almost every country in the world has a tradition of live fire cooking.

In some countries (France comes to mind), grilling is just one of many methods of cooking. In others, it defines the very soul of the culture. You can’t understand a South African until you’ve been to a brai. You can’t comprehend what it’s like to be Brazilian until you’ve experienced churrasco.

National Barbecue Day

Barbecue may be universal, but it varies enormously from country to country. Italians prize simplicity, seasoning their bistecca alla Fiorentina with little more than salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Indian tandoori routinely contains a dozen different spices and condiments; the particular meat matters less than the seasoning.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

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In Indonesia, great barbecue comes in small packages—sate—kebabs so tiny, you might eat a dozen or two at a single sitting. In Texas, a single T-bone would bury your plate. (That same steak would feed a family of 6 in Cambodia.) For many Americans, barbecue means meat, but in other parts of the world you fire up the grill for seafood or vegetables. (One of Japan’s national grilled dishes is dengaku, literally “tofu on stilts.”) Many Americans still consider barbecue a guy thing, but in countries as far-flung as Mexico, Serbia, and Vietnam, some of the best grill masters are women.

Sate Beef - National Barbecue Day

In the end, the book took me four years to write and it ballooned to more than 500 recipes. But when The Barbecue! Bible finally came out (we recently celebrated its 25th anniversary), it became an international bestseller.

Over the years, my research has taken me to more than 70 countries on 6 continents. I’ve learned so much about live fire cooking—enough to fill 10 books—and sometimes I feel like I’m just getting started. But in the end, the secret to great grilling boils down to a few key concepts.

  • First: Learn to control the fire, not have it control you. Build a zoned fire (one hot zone for searing, one medium zone for cooking, and one cool or safety zone where you can dodge flare-ups). Take your time and don’t overcrowd your grill grate. And of course, follow the Raichlen mantra: Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated. Link. Food is less likely to stick to a well-oiled grate, and you get killer grill marks to boot.

    • Second: flavor your food like you mean it, whether your seasoning takes the form of a spice rub, marinade, brine, baste, or barbecue sauce. Sometimes, simple salt (make it coarse crystals of sea salt) is all you need. (Just ask a gaucho grill master.) Other times, perfection might require multiple layers of flavor.
    • Barbecue Rubs

    • Third, and it’s certainly the rule at my house: cook the entire meal on the grill—from appetizers and salads to side dishes, and even dessert. Make that a whole day’s worth of meals, for few moments are more satisfying or peaceful than firing up your grill for breakfast.

      Breakfast on the Grill

      And while you’re at it, almost every food can be grilled or smoked, from eggs—try my Vietnamese grilled eggs or smoked deviled eggs to ice cream. And don’t forget to grill or smoke your libations—from grilled sangria to smoky Marys.

    But the most important lesson I have learned from a lifetime traveling the world’s grill trail is this: In the world of barbecue, there’s no such thing as strangers; just friends you haven’t met.

    So from all of us here at, we wish you a happy National Barbecue Day!

    Grill on!

    Steven Raichlen

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