That quote, one of the regularly rotating sayings posted on a sign outside 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Illinois, is apt for owner Mike Mills, who took a love of barbecue, made friends in and well beyond the barbecue world and has built quite a life, legend and legacy from his passion that started with the primitive, intrinsic appeal of smoke and meat.
His daughter and fellow barbecuer, educator and cookbook author Amy Mills, 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 clan 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.
That circle of friends and fans has widened along with the Mills’ barbecue reputation. “Even at our restaurant, people come to eat the food, but what they’re really wanting is to worship at the altar of the church of barbecue we’ve built over the past 30-plus years. They want to be part of our family and part of our congregation,” Amy says.
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.
Spark and Flame
Rewinding time a bit, Mike Mills 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 the “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.
On that point, southern Illinois isn’t exactly known as a barbecue hub, compared to Memphis or Kansas City, but it more than holds its own. “We have a rich tradition of barbecue here in our area. Starting in 1914, the first barbecue restaurant opened here and in the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a famous barbecue place called Whit’s that was my dad’s touchstone for barbecue,” Amy says.
Whether started by people traveling through the area on the Great Migration from the south to the northern states or by those who visited other cities known for smoked and slow cooked meat, barbecue in Murphysboro evolved to have its own signature style, with a dry rub and a sauce that’s generally a nod to other regions.
On a bigger level, Mike came onto the national scene as co-captain of the Apple City Barbecue team that captured world championship awards and went 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 named 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 barbecuer ever to board Air Force One.
There are plenty of other accolades he has racked up – meat pun intended – 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.
“He is one of the most famous guys in the barbecue community, and he is totally down to earth. He’s smart and his knowledge is without arrogance,” says sausage icon and meat cookery expert, Bruce Aidells, author of “The Complete Meat Cookbook,” among other books, who has met and worked with Mills at many food industry events.
Circling the flame
Meanwhile, although she grew up at Mike’s knee – and at the same altar of barbecue – 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.
Together, Mike and Amy Mills have shared their expertise with others. The father-daughter duo collaborated on cookbook, “Peace, Love and Barbecue,” which was nominated for a 2006 James Beard Foundation award. Most recently, Amy wrote a book released in 2017 called “Praise the Lard: Recipes and Revelations from a Legendary Life in Barbecue,” with input and insight from her legendary father and others.
That book is as much an autobiography, biography and ode to barbecue as it is a recipe book for meat, poultry and other items that go on the smoker, pit and grill. There are cocktail recipes here, too, to go along with all of the delectable barbecue meals. “This is really our story,” Amy explains. “It’s about us, but it is also about more than 50 of our best barbecue friends, people who haven’t had a huge amount of press but who have been important. It’s a love letter to our own barbecue family.”
Amy also feeds the flames of barbecue, so to speak, through her work as an industry consultant, spokesperson, PR maven and educator through her company, OnCue Consulting. “The OnCue classes and consulting are special – we’ve had over 1,000 people from 45 states and 16 countries come to learn more about the business of barbecue – from experienced restaurateurs who want to look behind the iron curtain and see how we do things at 17th Street to people interested in getting into the business,” she reports, noting that they have worked with barbecue restaurants, food trucks, and catering companies all over the world. More recently, she was selected as one of only 153 candidates out of 10,000 applicants for a mini-MBA program for small business leaders.
In their work in barbecue, demonstrating barbecuing and talking about barbecuing, the Mills have reaped some good rewards and like to think they are carrying on a tradition in a broader way. “You can learn about barbecue lots of different ways, but it really is about legend and lore and learning from one another,” Amy explains, noting that following tradition doesn’t mean doing it by rote or exactly the same way. “That’s what we stress in classes – we want to give you the principles of cooking and fire management and let you put your own taste in it. If it tastes good to you, that’s what matters.”
Mike also has taken some time to ponder the route that barbecue has taken him and his family on over the years. “You know, everything that’s happened has been beyond my wildest dreams. None of this was planned, and sometimes I look around and wonder how we got here,” he says. “Amy moved away and worked in Boston for a number of years and having her back at 17th Street has really been a blessing. She wrote our two books, ‘Peace, Love, and Barbecue’ and ‘Praise the Lard,’ and at first, she did all of the marketing and PR. Now she’s running it all.” He shrugs off taking all the credit building the smoky empire. “You know, no one does it alone. I’ve had so much help along the way. I attribute our success to the people who work for us and the many, many people who’ve helped us every step of the way.”
Even as they thank those who helped them along the way and pass on their own knowledge, the Mills family is looking to the future in new ways. They are currently working on transforming a local building into a facility for making and bottling barbecue sauce under their brand; the site is scheduled to open later this year.
That brings us back to the quotes in front of 17th Street Barbecue in the town where it all started for Mike Mills. “We call the quotes ‘Sunday Sermons’ and we put them on our Facebook page. I can meet someone randomly and they will say, ‘I love that saying you have on there!’” Amy says. “So it really is more than just about barbecue.”