Amy, a fellow barbecue enthusiast, educator and cookbook author, says that like the cooking method that requires skill and patience and is best enjoyed with others, it’s been a natural and ultimately rich and satisfying process for the Mills family and the brand they have built. “Barbecue has been part of our own family tradition for almost 100 years. It’s the way Mike’s daddy fed his family and the neighbors; it’s the way we gather as an extended family and it’s the way we entertain for our friends,” she declares.
The reason is basic…really basic. “Fire is a primal element and it draws people toward it. Anytime you have a fire or a barbecue grill, people will move in toward the flame. Time slows down and people have a chance to visit in a more leisurely fashion,” she points out.
In the beginning
Mike Mills didn’t start his career in the food industry. He was in the dental business and ran a bar in Murphysboro (population: about 8,000) before he got into barbecue. “Serving barbecue at 17th Street grew out of our barbecue contest, now in its 32nd year, started by Mike and a group of friends in order to bring some economic development and exposure to our town,” Amy recalls.
After founding their “Praise the Lard” barbecue competition in Murphysboro, Mike built his skills as a pitmaster, restaurant owner and as a formidable barbecue competitor, while putting Southern Illinois on the national barbecue map. “While we’re super proud of all of our trophies, we’re most proud that our good press shines a spotlight on Southern Illinois and that people from all over the world travel here to eat at 17th Street, hugely impacting the region’s economy,” Amy says.
After realizing some success as a competition cook regionally, Mike ventured onto the national scene as co-captain of the Apple City Barbecue team that would eventually capture world championship awards and go on to win three Grand World Champion awards at the Memphis in May contest, known as the “Super Bowl of Swine.” His ribs were named best in America by Bon Appetit magazine in 2007 and he was recognized as the most revered barbecue restaurateur by Restaurants and Institutions magazine that same year. Like some of his best kept barbecue secrets – his famous ribs are sprinkled with proprietary “magic dust” – he even got security clearance of his own to be the only pitmaster ever to board Air Force One.
There are plenty of other accolades he has racked up over the years to earn him the moniker “The Legend.” Currently, while still on the barbecue circuit and keeping a steady hand at his two 17th Street locations in Illinois, he is a partner with Danny Meyer at Blue Smoke Restaurant in New York City and he also owns two Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas.
Although she grew up at Mike’s knee, Amy moved to Boston to pursue another path before getting back into the family business. “I never dreamed I’d be back here (in Murphysboro, splitting time between there and Boston) doing this but it’s been incredibly rewarding. It’s been really special working side by side with my dad – he’s one of a kind, hugely revered and admired. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather learn from than him because he’s very special – not just in barbecue, but as a person,” she says.
Read the complete story in MEAT+POULTRY’s 2018 Barbecue Report, part of the July issue.