Allan Detrich is a respected photojournalist who not only has a passion for storm chasing, but a love of barbecue as well. His photos have appeared in such noteworthy publications as Sports Illustrated, Time, Life Magazine, USA Today, The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. He’s chased Mother Nature up and down Tornado Alley for decades and dined at some of the best-known and least-known barbecue joints along the way. For years, he has boldly tempted fate, routinely photographing ominous storm systems from not-so-safe distances and eventually began using his camera to also capture the essence of barbecue eateries throughout the country.
He recently published a barbecue-based book of photos that he’s collected while travelling around the country, called “BBQ Culture in America.” And he owes his success not only to his appetite for slow-smoked meat, but also to his thirst for excitement.
Since about 1997, Detrich has been a storm chaser, heading out on the road at the beginning of every May and spending about a month searching for the biggest storms in America. It’s a “hobby” that came about after following a story.
“I was working at the Toledo Blade and I had a gig where I could do pretty much whatever stories I wanted, and I decided to do a story on storm chasing – and this was before movies like ‘Twister’ came out,” he explains. “I went on the ‘baby’ internet at the time, and found a forum where people were looking for partners to chase storms. I found a group of people who were going to meet up and I hooked up with them to do the story, and just wound up becoming friends with them and forming a group with them the next year.”
Once experiencing the thrill of the chase, Detrich was hooked, and has been storm chasing for 22 years now. Over the years, he has put himself into the eye of hurricanes Gloria, Floyd and Rita. His photo of a deadly 2002 tornado that ripped through Tiffin, Ohio, earned him Time Magazine’s Photo of the Year.
“We get out there and don’t know where we’re going to stay from one night to the next, so you have to be able to move to get ahead of the weather; that means you might start in Kansas one day and that night end up almost in Texas,” he says. “We have a forecaster and we all go out and have a great time.”
A couple of years ago in Dodge City, Kansas, Detrich and his group saw 15 tornados in one day – sometimes as many as three at a time.
Some days, however, there is no weather to chase, so the group of chasers will hit the local hotspots of whatever town they happen to be in, seeking out the best local barbecue restaurants in a given region.
“We would eat at these great barbecue places and everyone got addicted to looking for them, so we would always drive by and take some photos and talk with the people who worked there. That’s where I got the idea for a book,” Detrich says. “A lot of these pit masters welcome you with open arms and love to talk barbecue, showing off their craft and traditions.”
“It’s an interesting group of people who are so nice and willing to share what they do with you,” Detrich says. “The cover of my book is of ‘Nat the Cat,’ an old guy I met in Florida 10 years ago while I was working on a story about the most impoverished city in the nation. He was cooking with this big smoker, so I got out to talk with him,” he says. “We talked for two hours and he ended up giving me his rub recipe, which gives a nice black bark on everything.”
As Detrich was researching the book, he sadly learned Nat had passed away several years earlier, but he’s honored that he’s this “white guy from Ohio carrying on this 90-year-old black guy’s traditional barbecue recipe of his rub.”
“That’s the heart and soul of this book, showing the culture and traditions and the people, plus of course the food, smoke and back story of the restaurants, which a lot of people don’t get to see,” he says. “Every photo has a caption and I try to go into detail so readers know what’s going on.”
For the next volume of the book, which Detrich has already started shooting, he hopes to go into some deeper stories than just what the captions say in the first book.
Sadly, three other pit masters featured in the book have also passed away and Detrich wants to preserve their memories and the history of all of these great barbecue shops, so he’s been taking the book and getting it signed by everyone featured and getting even more stories.
“My book is fast becoming a history book,” he says. “The bad part of that is we are losing a lot of culture,” he says, because when some of the people behind the restaurants die, so does their story.
After his many miles of travel and all the barbecue joints he’s frequented, Detrich considers himself something of a barbecue aficionado. He recently developed an app – The Sauce Shop app – which identifies barbecue joints closest to someone, as well as places to find the best sauces, rubs and spices.
“You can be anywhere in the world, hit the button, and it will give you the closest barbecue to you,” he says. “We don’t have every place in the world yet, but the list grows daily and we’re constantly learning of others thanks to crowdsourcing. People help me know when things open and close.”
As of the start of the 2019 storm-chasing season, there were more than 6,000 barbecue joints listed in the app, many that Detrich has eaten at personally. The app also allows for the purchase of sauces, rubs and other barbecue items.
“We have some great big things in the works with this,” he says. “It’s an exciting time,” Detrich says, “and it’s been a great passion of mine and I’m happy it’s going so well. If you love barbecue, you have to get it.”