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I was having lunch at Bub City with Myron Mixon, costar of the TV shows BBQ Pitmasters and BBQ Pit Wars, three-time Memphis in May grand champion, and barbecue consultant and marketing whiz under the name Jack's Old South BBQ, based out of Braselton, Georgia. I asked him what he'd sampled of Chicago barbecue: "You're lookin' at it," he said, pointing to the food we'd ordered off Bub City's menu that day. In town for the third year as a celebrity judge at the Windy City Smokeout a couple of weeks ago, Mixon has never had the chance to really explore Chicago's barbecue scene—his view of it has been limited to sponsor Bub City and whichever of our local stars competed in the event (this year including Smoque, Chicago Q, and Lillie's Q, plus newcomer chain Dinosaur Bar-B-Que).
He didn't have a lot to say about Chicago barbecue, but the "winningest man in barbecue" touched on plenty of other hot topics during our conversation. Mixon has a big southern personality, and it's easy to see why TV promoted him from competitor to costar early on. But you're wrong if you think he's another food TV refugee from Flavortown—as we talk he quickly shows he's thoughtful about and respectful of barbecue's traditions, as well as savvy about how regional barbecue styles have had to adapt to be commercially successful today.
As I said, the Smokeout was a couple of weeks ago, but if you'd like a whiff of Mixon's barbecue philosophy (outside of picking up one of his books), local pitmaster Joe Woodel of Husky Hog BBQ, who took Mixon's courses down in Georgia, will be giving a BBQ 101+ Workshop on Sunday, August 2. To sign up, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Gebert: So tell me about how you got started in barbecue and where your style of barbecue comes from.
Myron Mixon: My dad, Jack Mixon, that's where the Jack's Old South name comes from for one of my companies, I named it for my dad. He died in 1996. He had a takeout barbecue business, cook on Thursday, served on Friday, and if he had any left, he'd serve it Saturdays. We had a little food store, we made the Brunswick strew, mama made the coleslaw, we did all that for just the carryout—no sit down. You got it and you went.
I started having to cook when I was nine years old. The way daddy cooked was in a brick pit, old school. So you had to burn the wood down to coals, but in the first part of the week, you had to go cut the wood. It was a process and it was hard work. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but we had to do it, he'd use my brother and me as free labor.
The way he cooked was the way his daddy had cooked, and his daddy taught him—the Mixons have been here a long time. They grew up being pitmasters, not because you got to be on TV—because there was no TV. They did it because the community needed it. You fed large families cheaply, because that's what you had to do a lot of times.
My dad never used a gauge—he cooked by the smell of the meat and the feel of the meat, by touching of the meat. And I learned that. I didn't know I was learning it, but I did learn it, because I did it for so long.
What kind of sauce did he use?
In Georgia, we had a vinegar sauce. It just kind of brings out the flavor of the hog and cuts the fat. That was one of the things that you used to get around the country was regional sauces. You had vinegar sauces and mustard sauces. Now it seems like everybody wants that tomatoey, thick, sweet style out of Kansas City. You got to have that, no matter where you are.
Your dad would cook whole hog, I assume.
Yes, sir. The way you had to cook them on his pits—I have replicas of his pits at my compound, and I teach that class once a year, in January, called the Barbecue Memories class. But I only take 15 students a year for that class, because you're actually shoveling the coals beneath the meat. You basically have to build a gurney and lay the hog on it and wire him in, because it's got to be flipped.
The cookers we have today are all about offset cooking, or indirect cooking, where you don't have to flip. Whole hog, you have to flip it about halfway through. The way we're cooking, you get the crispy skin, and the cracklins. You don't get that with offset cooking.
How many classes do you do?
I do two main classes a year, 75 people, and I'm already booked out for October. I don't do them in July and August—you don't want to be visiting Georgia in July if you don't have to.
The main thing you're teaching, of course, is how to win at competition barbecue like you did. I know one thing people in Memphis-circuit competition will tell you about Kansas City-circuit barbecue is that it's all about the sweet sauce, like you say. (I'm sure Kansas City has its own criticisms of Memphis competitive barbecue, too.)
Well, Memphis has got a sweet sauce too now. It's not as sweet, but it's still got a taste of sweetness to it. One thing that everybody's learned, especially in the retail end of it, is that everybody doesn't like hot, everybody doesn't like tang, but just about everybody somewhere down the line likes sweet.
Competition barbecue is generally about one bite. And you've really got to put a lot of flavor into that one bite. Lot of times in competition barbecue, it's good, but it's overconcentrated—it's not something you could sit and eat a big platter of at one time.
A good plate of barbecue to me is like what I like to do at home—with my vinegar sauce, basic seasonings, no injections, and I can sit and eat a lot of it because it's good. But when you get in competition, judges have so many entries to judge, we just take little bites of it. So what you really end up having to do, is put that wow factor in the smallest bite you can possibly get, with the rub, with the sauce, even with the smoke.
Everybody thinks because they've got great restaurant barbecue that they can go out on the circuit and compete with it, but they can't. And vice versa, don't think you can take your competition barbecue, because you're doing well with it, and put it in a restaurant setting.
So when you teach barbecue, do you tailor it to whether people are going to be opening a restaurant or competing on the circuits?
My competition stuff isn't so over the top as some of the ones you see. They think if you keep getting it sweeter and sweeter, to where it's like eating a candy cane, they think they're going to win with that. Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. I tell the people in my classes, regardless of whether you're feeding judges or friends and family or customers, these recipes I'm giving you will work. They will do what you want to do, and turn out great barbecue.