Meet the Meathead Using Science and Sarcasm to Get Grilling Right
Barbecue impresario Meathead Goldwyn can get heated on the topic of beer-can chicken. The proprietor of AmazingRibs.com says the backyard summer dish is “one of the great loves of hairy-chested barbecue grillers and a really bad idea that doesn’t work.” Then he grins. "Drink the beer and take the can out of the chicken’s ass.”
That impish irreverence, along with a kettle of assertions about the “thermodynamics” of outdoor grilling, have made Goldwyn a sort of cross between Guy Fieri and Bill Nye the Science Guy—and AmazingRibs one of the most popular barbecue websites.
Punch smoked turkey into Google, and Goldwyn's homespun site appears with the corporate gloss of Food Network and Butterball in the top five results. Try BBQ ribs, and AmazingRibs is second only to Chow.com.
The 65-year-old Goldwyn runs the website from a red-brick bungalow in suburban Chicago, where he lives with his wife and two dogs. His backyard deck, not far from the Brookfield Zoo, is crowded with a dozen different grills and smokers and an assortment of spatulas, tongs, and other tools.
“It's the dream gig," he says while sipping a glass of cold Hefeweizen one recent afternoon. "Food, wine, beer, stay at home—right in my sweet spot."
It's also a sweet little business. Last year AmazingRibs generated more than $500,000 in revenue, according to Goldwyn, with the money split between online ads (20 percent), $23.95-a-year memberships (20 percent), and click-through fees from online retailers (the remainder).
The lucrative niche carved out by Goldwyn induced privately held Rupari Food Services of South Holland, Ill., to acquire AmazingRibs.com for an undisclosed price in January. Goldwyn is now the salaried president of his own division.
“You’re never exactly sure of what he’s going to say,” Rupari Chief Executive Jack Kelly says, “but that’s OK because he speaks from the heart.”
Goldwyn calls himself the “barbecue whisperer,” though whispering is hardly his style. His website figuratively screams with bad puns—he indexes recipes for ribs, ham, and bacon in a subsection called PORKnography—alongside reams of articles, photos, videos, and graphics about barbecue technique, equipment, and history. There's even a theme song, You Can't Hurry Ribs, sung to the tune of the Supremes hit.
At the core of AmazingRibs is Goldwyn's belief that chemistry and physics hold the keys to impressing guests with a sumptuous brisket, ribeye, or rack of ribs. In his view, the average weekend hack can become a gourmand with the proper meat thermometer and a basic understanding of the Maillard effect and intramuscular fat.
“We want you to understand the theory and not just follow a recipe,” he writes on the website. “One of our mottos is, ‘Give a man a fish, and he will probably get it stuck to the grill. Teach a man to cook a fish, and he will be a hero.’"
Goldwyn's scientific zeal is real. He pays two Ph.D.s to experiment with grilling theories and hired a full-time chef to help test recipes that range from the classic Chicago hot dog to oysters Wellington on different grills. Goldwyn's book, Meathead: The Science of Great BBQ and Grilling, is scheduled to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next year.
A squat keg of a man in cargo shorts and sneakers, with scruffy beard and silvery, shoulder-length hair, he turns into a five-year-old at Christmas while unwrapping a new digital meat thermometer that came in the mail. “This will take four probes at once so we can measure four different parts of the animal or four different parts of the grill,” Goldwyn says. “And it has a SIM card so we can graph the results.”
Much of the Gospel of Meathead skewers barbecue conventions and received wisdom—what Goldwyn calls "old husband's tales." To wit, the finest ribs do not necessarily fall off the bone, soaking wood chips is a mistake, and searing first before turning the heat down is not the best way to cook a thick steak.
His mostly male audience tends to fawn, except when beer-can chicken is the subject. Goldwyn used seven pages, three charts, and two diagrams to assail the popular notion that a can of beer shoved into a chicken gets hot enough on a grill to steam the bird. "The chicken is a thick, wet insulation blanket wrapped around the beer,” he wrote, “so, contrary to myth, the beer remains cool and never ever steams.”
Some of his readers steamed, though. One responded, "Your science is wrong." Another called him "unpleasantly defensive and patronizing," to which Meathead replied, "Just tired of people who believe in the tooth fairy and can’t read."
In Goldwyn's backyard, dogs Reese and Ivy wander among a phalanx of grills reviewed on AmazingRibs.com, from an old Weber kettle to a Big Green Egg to a basketball-size device that heats to more than 700 degrees in five minutes. Another that burns compressed sawdust pellets is fitted with a programmable thermostat that maintains a constant grill temperature. "They're all good for cooking different things," he says.
To prepare a recent lunch he packs the Weber with dried grapevines that burst into head-high flames before receding into an intense, short-lived burn ideal for three-quarter-inch-thick flank steaks. Goldwyn bounces around the grill with tongs in one hand and a thermometer in the other, poking the steaks here and there in search of a 130-degree reading for medium rare. He declares the meat done just as the vines turn to ash. "Cooking with these is always a race," he says.
After studying journalism and photography at the University of Florida, Goldwyn went to Detroit seeking an auto factory job and wound up living out of his Toyota pickup while working at a liquor store. He moved around while writing wine and food columns for the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post under the byline of his given name, Craig. “I will disavow that name,” he says now. “I’m Meathead.”
He started AmazingRibs.com in 2005 after a neighbor challenged him to a rib cook-off. Knowing little about barbecue, he says, "I did a lot of research. Everything everybody told me, I started questioning. When everybody said soak the wood chips, I said, ‘Why?’ When everybody said sear first, I said, ‘Why?’”
Readers started asking their own questions, and Goldwyn moved on to writing about beef ribs, then pulled pork, steaks, chicken, and fish. “After five years,” he says, “I was able to make a living at it.”
For such a small operation to amass an audience of more than 1 million monthly readers, according to Google Analytics, counts as an impressive feat—though not one that can command huge ad dollars.
Revenue comes mostly from “affiliate” fees Goldwyn collects from Amazon and other online stores when users click through, say, a hog roaster review on AmazingRibs.com to make a purchase. It’s the animal flesh version of TheWirecutter.com, which publishes deeply researched product reviews and takes a cut of purchases.
Goldwyn acknowledges the potential of a conflict of interest. "We pan products we don’t like and we’re honest about it," he says. "If what we write about makes the reader happy, the dollars will follow.” In the past year, he says, AmazingRibs has enticed more than 6,000 users to pay $23.95 for an annual membership in the "Pitmaster Club," which offers private barbecue forums, video seminars, and grill giveaways.
Goldwyn sold the site to Rupari, a maker of prepared barbecue dishes for restaurants and supermarkets, partly so his baby might outlive him. Some rib purists might frown on AmazingRibs aligning itself with ready-to-eat barbecue, but Meathead sees the acquisition as aspirational. “They want to be known as a great barbecue source,” he says of his new employer. “If we can help them develop a product [purists] will buy, that would be cool.”
Goldwyn says he won’t be grilling over Memorial Day weekend but plans to host a yard full of family and friends on July 4. “They won’t come if I’m not cooking ribs,” he says. “I used to think they like me, but they just like my food.”