Home Again

Celebrity chef Steve Raichlen returns to Baltimore to find that the coddies at the swim club are gone, but that crab cakes, Tio Pepe - and memories - live on.

May 05, 2004|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

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.

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