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Chicago has a few barbecue makers with something of a national profile—from Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago Q to Dave Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray's—and some with at least local cult status, like Barry Sorkin of Smoque and Mack Sevier of Uncle John's. But nobody in Chicago comes close to being a truly nationally renowned barbecue figure like Mike Mills of 17th Street BBQ, in far-downstate Murphysboro, near Carbondale.
Mills and his daughter, Amy (who styles herself a "BBQ heiress"), hobnob with the top names in the restaurant world—they're partners with Danny Meyer in New York's Blue Smoke, have a barbecue consulting business that draws clients worldwide, and turn up regularly on food TV. But they're also small-town midwesterners who know everybody in town and ask after their kids/parents/ailments when they meet. Mills became famous—and made 17th Street a famous name in barbecue circles—when the barbecue team he helped run took the title of grand champion at Memphis in May, the world's top barbecue competition, not once but three times in the early 90s. (It would have been four years in a row, except that they lost by 0.1 points one year in the middle.)
Mills got into competitive barbecue through the desire to launch a contest in Murphysboro to help his bar business. That competition, Praise the Lard, is in its 26th year this weekend; last year I attended it—or was embedded with it—for the late blog Grub Street Chicago, producing both a slide show and video about competitive barbecue's subculture.
About 70 teams camp out on the grounds near the restaurant, cooking all Friday night for judging on Saturday. Enough people come out for the spectacle that on Friday alone 17th Street BBQ feeds approximately one quarter of Murphysboro's population of 8,000. There's a little drunken rowdiness and dirty-story-telling as the night progresses, but a lot less than you might expect—it's mostly a family event, multiple generations working side by side. Maybe there are barbecue widows back at home in the case of some teams, but there are plenty of wives here helping out.
It's also a very socially mixed crowd—as Mills, who has a streak of 60s idealism you might not expect at first (unless you noticed the title of the Millses' book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue), says, "We've got doctors, lawyers, guys who work in garages—none of that matters here. It's all about what you're cooking." That said, it is an overwhelmingly white crowd cooking a black culinary style; there are a few black members of teams here and there, but only one black couple with their own team, from Mascoutah, Illinois, and Amy privately confided that she was mortified that because they registered toward the end, they wound up in the least desirable area for campsites and might think they were put there because they were black. (Which they kind of did.)
The only real cultural divide is between competitions. Praise the Lard has contestants in two different barbecue circuits with different personalities. The Memphis Barbecue Network is laid-back, good-timey, and involves talking up your meat to the judges (though there's also a blind-judging component so that, as someone tells me, "You can't win on bullshit alone"). The Kansas City Barbecue Society is more buttoned-up, requiring you to cook four different meats on a tight schedule and wholly blind judged. But more than that, Memphis is relatively straightforward barbecue, and its partisans tend to feel that KCBS teams treat barbecue like P.F. Chang's treats Chinese food—the more sugar in the sauce, the happier the judges will be. I heard some variation on the phrase "rib lollipops" more than once while down there.
If you can't just pack up and go to Murphysboro this weekend, the next best thing is my just-under-a-half-hour video at the top of this post, which aims to capture all the porkophilia, good-old-boy humor and, as the Millses put it, peace, love, and barbecue of Praise the Lard.