He has written best-selling
barbecue books, bested the Iron Chef in Tokyo, and hosted cooking shows on PBS. But the whole time, behind the flames beat the heart of a novelist. The Globe caught up with
Raichlen, a part-time Martha’s Vineyard resident, during the book tour for his recently
published “Island Apart,” a love story set on the Vineyard.
‘The recipes are the Trojan horse of [‘Planet Barbecue!’], designed to lead you from the grill to the human story behind barbecue.’
Q. After all these years, what finally gave you the push to write your novel?
A. It took moving to Martha’s Vineyard to find the plot, which intertwines love, loss, redemption, and really good food, and the characters, an enigmatic hermit, a New York book editor recovering from cancer, a disaffected teenager, her biker boyfriend, and the real-life iconoclastic psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich.
Q. You obviously love telling stories. Are good cookbooks about cooking — or something more?
A. I wrote “Planet Barbecue!” [his most recent cookbook] after writing the first draft of the novel, and I was so into storytelling at that point that 40 percent of the book consists of essays on the history, culture, anthropology, and virtuosos of live fire cooking. The recipes are the Trojan horse of the book, designed to lead you from the grill to the human story behind barbecue.
Q. After graduating from Reed College in 1975, you won a Watson Fellowship and moved to Paris to study medieval cooking. What was trendy during the Middle Ages, and what were the cookbooks like?
A. Then, as now, food served as entertainment and status symbol. One recipe I found featured roasted pigs dressed as knights holding lances larded with capons. Another provided instructions for secreting live birds in a pie shell — the “four and twenty blackbirds” of nursery-rhyme fame really existed. As for the recipes themselves, they were telegraphic: little more than a list of ingredients with a few lines of instruction. Precise measurements, temperatures, and cooking times would have to wait for the modern cookbook 400 years later.
Q. Food is definitely entertainment — but it has also started to scare us. What’s going on?
A. True, there are some genuine health issues (and to my mind, the most serious involve fast food and processed food), but I also think there’s a voracious media appetite for headlines and for controversy. Every year someone raises the issue of grilling and carcinogens. But cooking meat with fire was the single most important discovery humankind ever made. That put rocket boosters on our evolution because cooked meat is easier to digest and metabolize, leading to the large, powerful human brain. And cooking led to communal behavior: sharing a fire and a community meal, and even the division of labor, with some people tending the fire and others hunting and gathering. That’s why grilling has such a deep emotional resonance.
Q. Grilling seems like it should be so simple — as you point out, we’ve been doing it for a long time as a species — but people mess up all the time. How?
A. There are many ways. Sometimes they put too much food on the grill. You need 30 percent of the grill free. That’s room to maneuver if you get a flare-up. Another common mistake is the “guy syndrome.” It’s this philosophy that if some is good, more is better. If a teaspoon of hot sauce tastes good, a half a bottle must automatically be better.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. In the cookbook arena, I’m writing a culinary literacy course for men. I have started another novel. It’s set in an artisanal bakery in Portland, Ore. It involves a man who gets to reinvent his life, and the question of whether you can really change if given the opportunity, or does your character determine your fate? Reimagining one’s life is one of the great human fantasies. If you could go back, what would you do differently?