In the barbecue world, few names are bigger than Mike Mills. In the 1990′s, his Apple City Barbecue Team won an unprecedented three World Grand Championship titles at the massive Memphis in May contest, the “Superbowl of Swine.”
|Amy Mills Tunnicliffe and Mike Mills ©Keith Cotton
He currently owns two restaurants near his Southern Illinois hometown (17th Street Bar & Grill), three in Las Vegas with a fourth relocating, (Memphis Championship Barbecue) and is a partner in a New York City venture (Blue Smoke).
Though retired from competition, he remains a leader in the industry as the incumbent President of the National Barbecue Association (NBBQA). The NBBQA acts as a central point for information in the sometimes factious world of barbecue, which has at least six North American organizations that sanction competitions. According to Mills, the NBBQA’s most valuable functions are the seminars run by working barbecue professionals that provide education and assistance to restaurant pros, caterers, competition cooks and backyard hobbyists.
Mike Mills will sign books at the National Barbecue Assocation Conference in Knoxville, TN on February 22-25, 2006. The public is invited to attend on Saturday, February 25 for barbecue workshops, demos, and tastings. Future book signings and personal appearances can be found on the Upcoming Events section of the authors’ website.
Mr. Mills spoke with me before the December holidays to discuss Peace, Love, & Barbecue : Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies from the Legends of Barbecue, the book he co-authored with daughter Amy Mills-Tunnicliffe. My review is located here for those who linked their way to this interview.
On Writing and Teaching:
Professor Salt – When you were writing the book with your daughter, who did you think was the audience for the book?
Mike Mills – Well, I really felt that with some of the ideas and tips in it, I thought it would have an overall general appeal. Don’t think I didn’t ask myself, “what if we don’t sell any of these books?” But I kinda thought it would hit anyone interested in grilling and barbecuing. I knew there would be a lot of people out there after certain recipes, one of them being my baked beans.
PS – Yeah, it’s a great recipe. I visited your store in Murphysboro about four or five years ago…
MM – I’m sorry we didn’t meet.
PS – [Laughs] The baked beans were one of the side dishes that stood out for me.
MM – I cannot tell you just how many times that people’s asked me for that recipe and how many times I’ve turned them down, or how many times I’ve given something semi close.
PS – It’s unlike other barbecue books that I’ve read in that it’s not just a bunch of recipes and specific how-to’s of operating a smoker. It seems you wanted to show the competitive barbecue world you come from.
MM- I’m gonna tell you yes. Several of the recipes in the book are something people been after me for years: how do you fix this, how do you fix that? And of course, I’m one of those individuals, like most barbecuers… I don’t give out many secrets. But I’ve always given you… an individual, a direction to go and then let them put their own touch to it. I may give them part of a recipe and then you kinda use your own ingenuity to figure it out. To be honest, that’s the way I came up with a lot of them.
I got a lot of recipes from my mother. I’ll say I got a lot of them, but she didn’t have any recipes. They were all just in her head. You take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, without amounts or proportions, then you had to figure it out.
PS – The recipes you use in your restaurants are in the book. Was that a concern for you, for example, giving out your Magic Dust recipe?
MM- I’m gonna tell you no, and the reason I say this is that there are very few recipes that are ever followed exactly. And the other thing is the brand name of the ingredients that are used makes a difference.
PS – Ok, that makes a lot of sense.
MM – So when you say black pepper, well, there’s thirty grades of black pepper out there. You say a certain spice, there’s all kinds of brand names and it all makes a difference. Because when you say chili powder, god only knows how many chili powders there are, with different strengths. So depending on the brand you use, it [changes] how much it takes. I may tell you to use two tablespoons of chili powder in something, but if you don’t have the same brand I use, it may take you three to get the same flavor profile.
PS – Right. I’ve played with this myself. The size of the grit I use in the rub makes a difference: sifting it so it’s uniform, to keep the smaller pieces from settling out later.
MM – Exactly. Just like my rub for example. The majority of the spices people buy at the grocery store are not gonna be of the same quality and the same grind that I personally use. So therefore, there’s an effect. It’s human nature: if you happen to like a certain flavor and I tell you to put in two tablespoons of garlic granular… for example, “Oh I really like garlic, I’m gonna put in two and half,” it changes from the get-go. It’s just human nature, and I’ve caught myself doing this. Because I like something, I’m gonna add just a little bit more.
On Running a Restaurant Empire
PS – The people at your Murphysboro store were real nice to us. It was late on a weekday, and a little slow, so they took time to show us around the kitchen. I got to see your smoker.
MM – It’s tight quarters.
PS – I was impressed with the output you can get out of that kitchen. At the time, they were saying you were about to open your commercial catering kitchen to do mail order from the Murphysboro store. Are you selling by mail order now?
MM – No. [Laughs] I’m still working on that. It’s a labor of love. I’m still working on that, and I’ve got very little to do. I’ve got more paperwork than anything. It’s a time-consuming type situation and I just haven’t completed that. I need to put someone else in charge of that instead of me. Because I’m always going to do it tomorrow.
PS – Are you selling mail order out of the Vegas stores?
MM – No, we don’t have the facility for selling mail order out here. I should be up and rolling in February or March out in Murphysboro. Also, I shoulda had that done a year ago or two years ago. I had do it one step at a time as my dollars would let me.
PS – It seemed the first time I visited one of the Vegas stores, and this is about the time it was open for about eight months, the ribs were good… but the sides weren’t quite the same as they were in Illinois. I was a little disappointed. I revisited Vegas this fall and there was huge improvement, like “wow, this is the taste I remember.”
MM – It takes a while. We’ve all got grandmas, so to speak. My grandma put a little of this in it. It’s an ongoing process of them [my cooks] not personalizing it for themselves. I tell them this all the time: “Here is the flavor profile we want. We don’t want to vary from that. If you want to doctor up your own bowl or your own personal serving that’s fine.”
On The Culture of Barbecue
PS – Was there a bigger mission for the book than talking to the audience of committed barbecue cooks? Did you want to introduce barbecue to a bigger audience that’s never tasted real barbecue?
MM – Maybe an underlying aspect of that. But the other part was I wanted try to give an idea that this culture of barbecue… still goes on. Cuz there’s great and famous places all over the nation, it’s something that hasn’t just been discovered. It’s been around for a long time. You know the one in there of Kreuz Market… been around 102 years. That’s a lot of generations now to carry on this tradition.
PS – It’s good stuff. I’ve visited out in Texas, and had some of their brisket.
MM – Yeah, there’s Kreuz Market and also Smitty’s Market, which the sister and nephew run. There’s lot of history and a lot of culture out there, and I wasn’t trying to use this book as a travel guide, it’s just that I went to most of these people because I knew them, I cooked with them, or I just knew something of them. The majority I personally knew, through cooking with them on the BBQ circuit or had met them at one time or another and just knew about the history of them.
PS – I like that you talk about cooks from outside the “barbecue belt”: guys in upstate New York; Massachusetts; Michigan. Hayward Harris is close to me in California and I’d never heard of him before. I think it’s great that you’re spreading the word about them.
MM – I met Hayward out on the BBQ circuit and he’s just an interesting individual, a super nice person. He’s a good barbecuer, he takes it sincere. Hayward’s, as a lot of the BBQ people are, a little mysterious. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We’re all a little bit secretive. I’ll tell you just about anything you wanna hear, and I’ll guide you in the right direction (of what I think is right), and you gotta make up your own mind. I’ll tell you while I’m doing it that this is the way I do it. But I’m not gonna tell you everything I know.
On Meeting His Readers:
PS – At the book signings you’ve done, what surprises have come out of meeting your readers?
MM – One of the things I was amazed at (and it just worked out that way, not by design). I’ve had calls from people I didn’t even know, just to say, “I really enjoyed it and read the whole thing last night but I’ll reread certain parts of it now.” They’ll say, “I read it like a story book or a novel. ”
BBQ people do a lot of traveling, whether you’re “just” a consumer [laughs] and / or if you’re in the BBQ field. They’re using this thing like a yearbook – a high school annual, and going around getting people to sign it.
PS- No kidding!
MM – I thought, “Man, I wished I’d thought of that.”
PS – That’s hot.
MM – Of course the people in the book really love that aspect of it. That was something that was never expected. People enjoy the stories, they enjoy reading about it, and I hear from some of the people in it that people come into that store with their book, asking them to sign it. It wasn’t necessarily ever writ to drive business to anybody, not even to myself, it wasn’t designed to drive business to me. It was just a story about a labor of love and some of the interesting people that are in the field.
Epilogue January 2007: Q Magazine, the trade journal of the National Barbecue Assocation, ran an excerpt of this interview in its inaugural Winter 2007 issue.