"Yeeeeeeeeeeeehawwwwwww!!! Listen here, wife! I's gonna learn me how to bar-beeeeeee-cue."
I'd like to say those were the very words I yelled across my double-wide trailer before heading to West Virginia with the missus for a three-day course on how to manhandle meat. Unfortunately, I live in an apartment three blocks from Times Square, drive an SUV that's bleeding my bank account dry, and when I yeehaw, burly truck drivers two states away pull over to wipe tears of laughter from their eyes.
Then again, Steven Raichlen's Barbecue Boot Camp at the Greenbrier isn't exactly a backwoods hootenanny. Granted, the Greenbrier is in West Virginia—but this graceful, columned resort (think equal parts White House, Tara, and Versailles) in White Sulphur Springs is so genteel that if you want to yeehaw after 6 p.m., you'd better do it in a Brooks Brothers blazer. And, while Raichlen may smell like smoldering wood chips, this master of the grill (and author of the best-selling Barbecue Bible) is serious about the art of cooking out.
The Greenbrier has been holding cooking classes for 24 years, featuring chefs as celebrated as Julia Child. In 2000, Raichlen added a barbecue finishing school to the curriculum. Classrooms don't get any better than his: Kate's Mountain Lodge, about a half-mile from the main hotel, is wood-beamed, wood-paneled, wood-burning, and missing just enough wall to allow a nice view of the woods. About 35 of us are attending this session, and we chat in hushed anticipation like the raw recruits we are.
I've never taken a cooking class and I'm about as at home in the kitchen as a fat man in the Bolshoi Ballet. But grilling is a different matter. First, it doesn't feel like cooking. It feels more like a great excuse to hang out in the backyard and hum ABBA tunes without having to do something sweaty and productive like mowing the lawn. Second, when you make a (theoretically) triumphant entrance bearing a platter of sizzling steaks, everyone is impressed. Plus, I can't get enough of the charbroiled taste. If anyone figures out a way to make barbecue-flavored dental floss, call me. I'll buy it. All of it.
Unfortunately, my skills are so limited that when I prepare a "grilled smorgasbord," it means that some of the burgers are well-done and the rest are burned. I hoped Raichlen's class would give me the grilling mastery that every man claims to possess, but doesn't. In other words, I wanted the kind of masculine boasting rights a $230,000 Ferrari might confer.
As I'd imagined them, cooking classes were rife with cooking snobs. People whose cabinets are filled with infused olive oils. People who carry Food Network tote bags. People who give me a rash the size of a cast-iron frying pan. While we waited for the grill master to arrive, I worked the classroom, hunting for smugness.
But there was none to be found. Most of my "boot camp" mates would definitely not call themselves foodies. "Nope," said one, an older West Virginia native with a slight drawl. "If it were Barbecue Boot Camp at the Holiday Inn, my wife and I wouldn't be there. We love the Greenbrier, and mixing a cooking class with some golf and swimming is just right."
At precisely 9 a.m., Raichlen walked in and blew on a Marine Corps drill sergeant's whistle (harder than anyone should at 9 a.m.). "Are you ready to barbecue?" His yell was imbued with the same sunshiny, sadistic pleasure he probably felt when informing his wife that they were going to Alaska for two weeks to learn the secrets of salmon-grilling (they actually did). The man was clearly ecstatic about grilling before noon.
The class moved outside, where an artillery of grills was arranged in a semicircle: humble backyard hibachis, Komodo cookers, Holland Legacys, TEC Sterlings, and upright barrel smokers. Watching Raichlen jump from one piece of hardware to the next and explain its particular benefits, I couldn't help fixating on how big this man's garage must be.
"What's the difference between grilling and barbecuing?" he called out. I started to raise my hand, then realized that "Barbecuing after Labor Day is gauche" was probably the wrong answer. Raichlen explained: "Barbecuing is a slow process, using indirect heat. Grilling is always done fast and right over the heat source."
I had come looking for a few new tricks, and Raichlen was already impressing me. The first thing we tackled after moving back inside was grilled gazpacho. "I love experimenting with foods you normally wouldn't associate with the grill," Raichlen told the class. "And there's nothing better than telling people that you're going to grill some soup."
Raichlen called a class member to the front of the room, where he and Riki Senn, the Greenbrier cooking school director, presided over a couple of Ponderosa Steakhouse—sized charcoal grills. Mirrors were mounted overhead so we could watch the action. A very un-meaty assortment of bell peppers, cucumbers, scallions, onions, and tomatoes were quickly skewered. While the veggies cooked, another volunteer went up to help make the Perfect Burgers.
Before the class started, I'd had visions of spending three mornings over a grill, personally juggling five or six dishes while my face slowly melted from the heat. The one-volunteer-per-dish method was more to my liking. And Raichlen kept things moving: one classmate cooked, another prepped, Senn lent a hand, and Raichlen cracked jokes and gave helpful tips. Did you know that water pistols come in handy for flare-up control?
The grilled vegetables were chopped, tossed in a Cuisinart, and turned into gazpacho. The smoky flavor made it seem as if Raichlen had indeed figured out a way to flame-broil soup. The perfect hamburgers (each patty had a slice of garlic-herb butter hidden inside) filled the room with a mouthwatering aroma. All was going smoothly until Raichlen violated a chicken with a beer can.
"If you look cool, you have accomplished the ultimate goal of grilling. And with this recipe, eyes will pop, jaws will drop!" he roared before divulging the mysteries of the beer-can chicken. Prep work is simple: Pop open a Budweiser, take a few sips, and pour a couple of spoonfuls of barbecue dry-rub (equal parts salt, pepper, paprika, and brown sugar) into the can. After cleaning the bird, take the aforementioned Bud and, to put it delicately, shove it where the sun don't shine.
Having done exactly this to two chickens and then massaged them liberally with more dry-rub, Raichlen stood them upright in the middle of a grill arranged for indirect cooking (piles of charcoal are pushed to either side to give off a medium heat). The birds looked as if they might lock wings and do a little poultry polka. We waved to them as Raichlen brought the lid down. A little more than an hour later, our tiny dancers were golden brown and roasted to a moist perfection seldom encountered in your typical backyard bird. "You can do this with Cornish game hens," Raichlen added with a smirk, "but you'll probably want to use eight-ounce cans."
Class lasted about four hours, during which time we grilled not only soup, burgers, and chicken, but also cabbage, corn, and, my personal favorite, cinnamon-grilled peaches—all of which we happily devoured. It was a meal of medieval proportions, complete in every way. The only thing not grilled was the sangria.
By 1 p.m. I was stuffed and a little drunk, and had the rest of the day to enjoy the resort. I found my swimsuited wife poolside, sipping a frothy drink. The Greenbrier may be 100 miles out in the middle of nowhere, but its 6,500 acres of manicured grounds could make Palm Beach feel dowdy. Later, we tried our hand over at the Greenbrier's croquet club. If you've hefted a mallet only in a bumpy backyard, you have no idea how supremely gracious it is to play on a regulation field, where every blade of grass has been clipped to one micron in height. I may not have been wearing a seersucker suit, but I felt as if I were.
By day two, I was totally into the ironic rhythm of a barbecue school at a four-star resort: Raichlen's tongue-in-cheek whistle kicking off four hours of busy grilling, followed by totally selfish afternoons. The class made everything from Thai grilled beef salad and Chicken Under Brick to Coco Loco Crème Brûlée and bacon-grilled prunes. Yours truly prepped the hot dogs stuffed with cheese and chile peppers—maybe not the most exotic dish, but then how often are you going to get a request for bacon-grilled prunes?
One of our cohorts, we learned, had been publicly humiliated when his wife appeared on Oprah and told a shocked nation that her husband was a grilling failure. Hoping to resolve their marital woes, Oprah had shipped him off for boot camp training.
Now, there are three things a man should know from birth: how to throw a baseball, how not to ask for directions when lost, and how to grill. So it was with a deep sense of shared concern that I, and every other male in the class, watched as our brother stepped up to the grill. Under Raichlen's watchful eye, Sean Sullivan managed to turn out a perfectly acceptable set of grilled scallops on rosemary skewers. Triumphantly, he returned to his seat with a glint in his eye and announced, "Oprah won't have me to kick around anymore."
While savoring Sean's grilled scallops, I became aware of a disturbing feeling: I no longer wanted to just hang out in the backyard flipping steaks. I wanted to create. I wanted the world on my grill, sizzling and waiting to be turned. I pictured myself grilling . . . kiwi fruit! Lox! Bagels and cream cheese with hatch marks on them! Smoked cornflakes!
Day three came all too quickly, and there we were receiving our barbecue diplomas. With exaggerated pomp, Raichlen presented each of us with a big, stainless-steel spatula (which I like to carry around the office in lieu of a swagger stick) and a camouflage apron that—thank goodness—says Barbecue Boot Camp instead of Kiss the Cook. The masculine ego is a fragile thing.
The Greenbrier, 300 W. Main St., White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.; 800/228-5049 or 304/ 536-7863; www.greenbrier.com; doubles from $2,752 (for room and instruction). Boot camp sessions this year are July 21—24 and September 15—18. Steven Raichlen's latest book, Beer Can Chicken, has just been published.