IT’S A HARD FACT FOR CHICAGO’S BUZZING BARBECUE scene to accept that the most successful and celebrated barbecue name and joint in Illinois still belong to a town of 8,000 at the complete opposite end of the state.

Murphysboro, Illinois, located near Carbondale and Cairo, is home to 17th Street BBQ, which not only packs them in nightly for distinctly Southern barbecue, but is just one face of a family business that also includes a partnership with Danny Meyer in New York City’s Blue Smoke and the annual Big Apple Barbecue, a consulting business which teaches barbecue to would-be barbecue owners (and often to existing owners who want to make better barbecue than they do), a major competition on both the Memphis and Kansas City barbecue circuits called Praise the Lard, and two books, 2005’s Peace, Love and Barbecue and their new book, Praise the Lard: Recipes and Revalations From a Legendary Life in Barbecue.

Amy Mills signing books at the book event at Smoque on Monday

Mike Mills at Smoque

“They” are Mike Mills, who owned a dental business and a bar in Murphysboro before going into barbecue competitions and amassing an attic full of trophies with the only team to win Memphis in May four times in a row; and his daughter Amy Mills, self-styled “barbecue heiress,” who went off to work in advertising in Boston, and eventually returned home to find her best client in her dad’s business.

Together they represent both the authenticity and the modernization of barbecue—17th Street BBQ is no Disney simulation (even if they do have an outlet in Vegas); you go there to experience the living history of small town American barbecue, still thriving. At the same time, they’re savvy about how barbecue is popular nationwide, about how regional styles are becoming nationalized, and about how they can use barbecue’s popularity to revitalize their home town—their latest project is turning a long-shuttered car dealership in Murphysboro into a sauce bottling plant.

They’re here in town this weekend for the Windy City Smokeout, a barbecue and country music festival held just across the river from River North featuring a number of barbecue stars from around the country. I first got to know Mike and Amy Mills when I shot a Sky Full of Bacon video at Praise the Lard in 2012, and met up with them again at a book event with local barbecurati at Smoque on Monday; Amy and I met for coffee and a chat one morning this week.

Graziano prosciutto

 

FOODITOR: You put your whole life into a book and then your agent says, now what’s the second book going to be about. So what is the second book about?

AMY MILLS: Yeah, exactly. Well, there are twelve years between books. I really didn’t want to have “here’s my book about sauce, here’s my book about rub.” Because those aren’t things we really do. I wanted it to be about things we do. And I think what resonated so much with people was the stories. People certainly cook from it, but people mostly talk to me about the stories.

So I wanted this to have stories, too, and trying to figure out how to tell the story took a little while. But a lot of life happened, too. So I think the stories come from a richer place.

The first one felt like it was more about the barbecue culture, of the restaurant and the competition, where this one felt more like it was about the southern culture of the town.

Yes, the town is a character. Our town had its heyday a long time ago, and it’s never really recovered. It has little fits and starts, and actually right now it’s having a renaissance of sorts with people who are buying buildings downtown, and starting new little businesses. But we were very much a factory town, and when those factories go away, they’re never coming back. So you have to come up with different things to do.

Amy Mills with fellow BBQ book author Meathead Goldwyn

It’s so interesting to me that barbecue has buoyed this town. Two years ago we were named the barbecue capitol of Illinois by the state legislature, the only thing they’ve been able to agree on [laughs]. Barbecue has been in Murphysboro since the early part of the 1900s, so it’s kind of cool that we have that designation now. People come from all over the world to eat at 17th Street, and half our business is out of town. We would not be able to survive just on our local population.

Which is kind of remarkable because Murphysboro’s not really between anything and anything, not without a healthy detour, anyway.

It’s a testament to peoples’ interest in food, and I think for sure a testament to my dad and his reach and charisma and popularity.

Food tourism is huge now, and there’s an app called TV Food Maps that people will tell me, I always ask how they heard of us. They saw us on TV, they read the book, or they used that app.

Which is part of the contradiction—that’s what’s taking the most regionally-based food, and making it national, so you can get Texas brisket in, you know, North Dakota now. 

I hate that! I know. There’s definitely some homogenization going on in barbecue. But even the ones who start off that way, I like to think the good ones will make it their own. John Shelton Reed, I’m sure you’ve read him, he compares barbecue to the wines of France. If you go 20 miles, the flavor changes.

99 Amaze

So I think that’s what happens in barbecue, we have all these classes and we teach people how to make it, but our hope is that they go off and they use their own rub and their own sauce. We’re giving them some principles of cooking and fire management, and how to run a successful business, but we are not trying to replicate our flavor. We want people to find their own flavor.

And even though it’s kind of the same three meats, there’s still differences in how they’re cut or prepared—

Like the pork steak, which is in the book and which we demo’d on WGN. That’s definitely the southern Illinois/Missouri region. Outside of that region, nobody has heard of pork steak.

Now, one concession to modernity that you talk about in the book—you expanded your sauce lineup to reflect other regional styles.

I did. That was me. My dad hates those other sauces. He is not a fruity sauce person, but I love fruity sauces, and I especially like that blackberry habanero sauce. I could eat that by the spoonful, it’s so good. It’s okay to have some new things!

How did you come up with a second set of recipes for a book?

The recipes are either from the restaurant, from the family, or things I’ve come up with on my own. It’s hard to think of new things to write about meat in a second book—there’s no new meat to talk about, and again I wanted it to be something we do. But I am proud that the meat recipes are really thorough. It’s very much about telling people what to look for at different stages. Because a lot of books will just say, start a fire, make an indirect area, cook to X number of degrees. But they never tell you when to check it, when to turn it. When to tent it. So we tried to give somebody who’s not very good a way to be really good at barbecue.

Brisket sandwiches at Smoque

The sides, we wanted them to be some classics and some newer things. Some fresher things—we tried to have some vegetables in there, just some fresh grilled vegetables or some salad. Though I did use a little lard in a few recipes, the cornbread pudding. Or the biscuits. You gotta have a good biscuit recipe. Our new diner that we’re going to open is going to be very biscuit heavy. We make them for catering at the restaurant, but I don’t really want to add them there. But the new place will have them.

There’s a poignant part in the book where your dad talks about the town when he was growing up, and that’s the image that people are looking for when people come to Murphysboro to eat barbecue, I think. And then you write about growing up in it in the 70s and 80s, when all that was going away. So how have you leveraged barbecue to try to turn things around a little?

I think it really happened very organically. We really started paying attention to it a few years ago. We have no hotel in town now. The Murphysboro Hotel was torn down a few years ago. A man was going to come in and build a hotel and he was like, I don’t know if this town can support it. And I said, yes, yes we can support it!

HP

So we put a chalkboard in the restaurant, and we write down where people are from. For a long time I posted them every day on social media, then that seemed to get boring. But it’s fascinating to see that every day, there are four or five states or countries that are represented.

And then you pull from the Wine Trail, which is very vibrant, lots of business, they send people to us, we send people to them. And then now we have all of these microbreweries that are popping up, and there’s going to be a beer trail. So we definitely need that hotel.

Mike Mills chatting with Dave Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray’s

What we are doing that I’m really excited about is that we’ve got a building around the corner from us, it’s actually on Walnut street, and it was the oldest car dealership in town. It’s all kind of boarded up, and not in great shape, but we’re going to restore that and it’s going to become a barbecue sauce factory.

So you are bringing the factories back.

A little, yeah. And then the front of that, that was the showroom, is going to be our diner, with breakfast, lunch and coffee all day, because I don’t want to compete with myself at night. There’s those new shops downtown, but there really isn’t a place to sit and have a cup of coffee, so now there’ll be one.

 


Michael Gebert is editor of Fooditor and has already made the summer corn salad (p. 218) twice since he got the book. 


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