Steven Raichlen, an authority in matters of fire and smoke, is standing in front of his former family home at 4117 Ronis Road in the Milford Mill area of Baltimore County talking about the time his mother almost set herself on fire while grilling supper.
It was in the 1960s, when cooking supper over a charcoal fire was a relatively new phenomenon in America. His mother, Frances, who was an accomplished ballet dancer but not much of a cook, tried to hurry along some smoldering charcoal by pouring a can of gasoline on the coals.
The brick houses on Ronis Road near Sudbrook Magnet Middle School are close together, a fact of suburban geography that saved Mrs. Raichlen from fiery pain. Pete Auer, who lived at 4119 Ronis Road, happened to be out on his side patio that evening when he looked next door and saw his neighbor pouring gasoline on a fire.
"Pete jumped down," Raichlen says pointing to the small terrace that separates the two side yards, "and pulled the gas can from her hand," rescuing her before the flames had a chance to shoot into the gas can and explode.
Raichlen shakes his head in wry amusement at the recollection of the near miss. The author of The Barbecue Bible and a series of other best-selling barbecue cookbooks as well as the host of public television's Barbecue University show, Raichlen had come back to Baltimore, his hometown, to cook.
Later in the week, he would fire up a gas grill in a rain-soaked tent outside the Baltimore Museum of Industry and compete against nationally known chefs such as Jacques Pepin and New York's Bobby Flay to see who could grill the tastiest pork tenderloin. Raichlen would win the semi-serious competition by whipping up a coffee-crusted pork tenderloin, grilled bananas and a mango slaw.
He would fly back to his wife, Barbara Seldin, in Coconut Grove, Fla., a happy man, in part because he won the cook-off held in conjunction with the convention of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, in part because he would be carrying two crab cakes from Faidley's Seafood in the Lexington Market. And in part he would be happy because while in Baltimore he had gone on what he calls "a roots tour," visiting his former haunts, the spots he frequented during the first 18 years of his life, from 1953 to 1971.
At times during the tour Raichlen is buoyant, digging into bags holding three of the four C's that composed the food of his Baltimore childhood - corned beef, coddies and chocolate-topped cookies - with gustatory delight. He meets up with the fourth C, crab, later.
At times he is amusing, pining for Debby Berman, the older girl next door on Ronis Road. "Actually she lived behind us. She was hot. She wouldn't give me the time of day." At times he is touched with pathos, such as during lunch at Tio Pepe, remembering both the joy and sadness he felt the last time he had eaten there, as a high school graduate whose mother had recently died and who couldn't wait to see the world beyond Baltimore.
Mostly, he is reflective, looking out on the blooming trees near Cloudyfold Drive, where his family lived for a few years before moving to a bigger home a few blocks away on Ronis Road, and offering an intriguing metaphor for life.
"As you get older, you see you are a tenant in life, not a landlord," says Raichlen, 51. "You live in a place for a while and you begin to think you own it, but you are just a guest passing through. At first this idea of being a tenant, not a landlord, was upsetting to me. But now I see it as comforting."
Appropriately, the tour begins at the airport, now known as Baltimore-Washington International but remembered by Raichlen as Friendship.
Raichlen estimates that he is on the road four or five months of the year. He likes to travel, he says, adding that even sterile airports can be tolerable, if you have Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan loaded on your iPod. He arrived on a flight from Raleigh.
While in North Carolina on a book tour, he found his way to Allen and Son, a barbecue emporium on Route 86 north between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough where the pork is still cooked over hickory coals, yielding meat, he reports, with a delicate smoke flavor.
"Steven is constantly on the road," says Katie R. Workman, head of Workman Publishing, the New York house that publishes his cookbooks. "He has established himself as the voice of barbecue," Workman says, "and he knows you can't do that by sitting at home."
Liberty Road has become wider and more congested since he lived here, he says, but he still knows the route to his old high school, Milford Mill. When we swing into the parking lot behind the school, now a magnet school called Milford Mill Academy, Raichlen spots a barbecue cooker sitting in an empty space. He pulls out a camera and gets his photo snapped standing in front of his old school.
"I was pretty much of a geek until the hippy movement came along," he says of his high-school days. "Then I got into the hippy thing and was cool. I was in a band, I had a VW minibus and girls." A big date, he says, was a trip downtown for a trout dinner at Martick's in downtown Baltimore. "Once I saved some shekels and took Joanne Blum to Martick's." On weekends, he says, he would take the bus "down to the head shops on Read Street and sell peace symbols."
The next stop is Milford Mill Swimming Club, that was, he says, the social center of his universe when he was a preteen.
"I used to catch crawfish in that stream," he says as he strides over the wooden bridge near the club entrance. "Back then, I didn't know you cook them."
Staffers are painting and cleaning the club, getting it ready for summer duty when Raichlen visits. He revels in seeing the high dive, the ropes he used to swing on and the rock cliffs an occasional hot shot would dive off to impress the girls.
The menu, however, has changed from his day. "I used to eat coddies," Raichlen says, adding the ones from the pool's old snack bar weren't as good as the ones he had just eaten on the drive from the airport. The modern coddies, which came from Weiss Delicatessen in East Baltimore, were still warm. The Milford Mill coddies of his youth were cold.
When asked about these fish cakes, the club owner, Bill Walker, a native of New York who bought the swim club four years ago, draws a blank, asking, "What's a coddie?"
Walker says that he is used to seeing visitors like Raichlen, former residents now living in far-flung spots, who drop by the swim club for a taste of nostalgia. "We get them all time," Walker says. "One even came from Israel."
Besides the menu, the clientele of the swim club has changed, Raichlen says. Now the club is racially integrated, but in the early '60s when he was a kid, blacks were excluded. There were protests outside the club, some calling for integration, some for segregation. By 1969, the club was integrated. Baltimore, he thinks, still has the "dialectic of race" that was present in his youth.
We drive past Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where he was bar mitzvahed, en route to Mount Washington, the neighborhood of his maternal and paternal grandparents, Jacob and Sarah Goldman and Samuel and Ethel Raichlen. Friday-night meals at the grandparents', finished off with the chocolate-topped cookies, were a regular part of his childhood routine. After his mother died suddenly during his senior year in high school, he moved in with his paternal grandparents at 6103 Stuart Ave.
Those large family meals, prepared by grandmothers and aunts who cooked from scratch, had an effect on him, one he realized later in life, Raichlen says. "They set standards ... and associated the love of food with family and happiness."
When he walks in Tio Pepe, he is taken aback. It has been close to three decades since he was last there, dining - as was the Baltimore custom - with family members celebrating his high-school graduation.
The restaurant is busy: A table of eight women celebrates a birthday, a business foursome enjoys a late lunch. Like much of Baltimore, Tio Pepe strikes him, Raichlen says, as "amazingly the same" as the scenes of his youth.
He declares an appetizer of peppers stuffed with crab meat "outstanding, as good as anything you would get in New York." He knows something about New York since his stepson, Jake Klein, is executive chef at the Pulse, a Manhattan restaurant.
Raichlen samples the garlic shrimp and chats with chef Emiliano Sanz, who stops by the table. Raichlen polishes off two sauteed soft crabs and takes an appreciative swipe or two at the toasted pine nuts on a slice of pine-nut cake.
He is impressed with the restaurant's fare and with its heritage. "When I think that my grandparents took me here, when they were in the prime of their lives. And 20 or 30 years later the grand tradition is still going on. ... It is really amazing."
Ready to move on
In retrospect, he sees he was anxious to get out of Baltimore. Having lost his mother and moved out of his family home during his senior year in high school, he was ready to move on.
His father, Isador "Sonny" Raichlen, a pharmacist, had hired a college counselor to help his son pick a school. That college, Reed College, turned out to be a good fit. The students there, like him, were into beads and sandals and unconventional thinking, he says. And it was in Portland, Ore., a long way from Baltimore.
In college Raichlen latched onto a fellowship that allowed him to study medieval cooking in Europe, and he finished the tour abroad by taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris. Back in the States he settled in Boston, writing free-lance articles and a couple of cookbooks he has described as "well-kept secrets in the publishing world."
Success in publishing
Starting in 1993, his publishing fortunes began to improve. His High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking won an award from the James Beard Society for the year's best healthy-cooking work; a book about Florida cuisine, Miami Spice, won a regional cookbook award from the IACP; and then he began publishing a string of highly successful barbecue cookbooks: The Barbecue Bible (1998), Beer-Can Chicken (2002), BBQ USA (2003). His top-seller, How to Grill, published in 2001, has gone through 14 printings and has sold more than a million copies, according to the publisher.
Despite his yen for barbecue, he says, "The single greatest dish in the whole world is Maryland steamed crabs." He says this shortly after a feast at Obrycki's Crab House & Seafood Restaurant, where he instructs a bevy of Workman authors - Anne Byrn of The Cake Mix Doctor, Debby Nakos of Small Batch Baking, Susanna Hoffman of The Well-Filled Tortilla, Judy Kancigor of The Melting Pot and Karen MacNeil of The Wine Bible - in the fine points of eating steamed crabs.
His main tips are: First, don't fill up on the appetizers before the crabs, and second, once the legs, claws and lungs are removed, make a horizontal slice through the inner crab shell and the meat will be easy pickings.
Back in Florida, he sums up, in a telephone call, the effect of his roots tour. "It was incredibly pleasing. It reminded me of times that were both bitter and sweet. It made me feel both triumphs and pain."
While Baltimore is a great place to eat, Raichlen says, in answer to a query, that he doesn't want to live here. "Now I am willing to sacrifice that comfort of belonging to a place in order to have the opportunity for new experiences."
It is a diplomatic answer couched in some of the same philosophic framework he uses when addressing his fondness for Baltimore's beloved chocolate-topped cookies.
If these cookies were fed to a panel of gourmets, he says, the panel members would probably turn up their noses. The chocolate is not that fine, the cookie lacks butter, he says. "But when you grow up here," he says "eating them delivers a sense of comfort and memory."
They may not be the best cookies in the world, but they are his favorites. When he left town last week, he had some with him.
Occupation: Cookbook author, cooking teacher
Education: Graduate of Milford Mill High School and Reed College in Portland, Ore., with a degree in French literature
Family: Married to Barbara Seldin
Residence: Coconut Grove, Fla.