Gerry Dawes / June 2004
Food Arts presents the June 2004 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to barbecue maestro Mike (The Legend) Mills, owner of 17th St. Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, Illinois, and soon to be four Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas. What's more, Mills is the only three-time winner of the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, aka the Super Bowl of Swine. In New York City, Mills is known as the guru who proclaimed the meat-smoking religion to chefs Michael Romano and Ken Callaghan when they collaborated on Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke, which opened in March 2002.
Mills' Apple City Barbecue Team, which he founded in 1988, with Pat Burke, another southern Illinois barbecue aficionado, smoked its way to titles in 1990, 1992, and 1994, plus a near miss by .02 points in 1993. Apple City also captured four rib crowns in the Memphis event. After winning more honors than any other team in the history of international barbecue competition, Mills retired the Apple City team from the circuit in 1994.
At 17th Street, where the easygoing waitstaff greets customers with a folksy "How y'all doin' this evening?" Mills dishes up plates groaning with "low & slow" cooked slabs of baby back ribs, pork shoulder sandwiches, tasty beef brisket, smoked barbecue chicken, and the like. He believes in cooking meat for a long time at a low temperature: "Never shock your meat by putting it into a hot smoker," he cautions. "Start it out cool and cook it low and slow. Cooking a pig takes all day. Anytime we tried to make it easier and faster, it didn't work." Mills sprinkles his "magic dust," a classified blend of herbs and spices, for a light dry rub. And he doesn't use wet sauces on the meat because "sauces are condiments for when the meat is served and should complement the meat."
Mills, born in southern Illinois, learned his barbecue skills from his father, who prepared a pit barbecue for neighbors back in the 1930s, and from Whitt's, a legendary Murphysboro barbecue joint run by Carl Whittington, to whom Mills, young and poor, used to trade game rations of moist, smoky sandwiches and ribs. Mills' 17th Street spicy, vinegar-based barbecue sauce, which won the Jack Daniels Invitational Best Sauce Award in 1992, was developed by his maternal grandmother and was prepared from the family recipe by his late mother, Mama Faye, until she was into her nineties.
Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, who's helping her father write his memoir, *Peace, Love, & Barbecue Secrets, Tall Tales, & Outright Lies from the Legends of Barbecue *, which is to be published next year, says Mills' "Legend" label is no joke. "Walking through the competition grounds with my dad during the Memphis in May event is like being with Elvis," she notes. "We literally can't walk two feet without someone wanting to meet him, inviting him to taste their barbecue, asking for his cooking and competition advice, or even to autograph their aprons."
Cooking up ribs will do that to you.