Mike Mills is, first and foremost, a small-town barbecue entrepreneur — 17th Street Bar & Grill, after all, is located in Murphysboro, Illinois (population 8,000, near the southern tip of the state). But he’s also a partner with Danny Meyer in New York’s Blue Smoke and owner of Memphis Championship Barbecue in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, his daughter Amy, the self-described “barbecue heiress,” starred on the Food Network’s Best in Smoke. What catapulted Mike and his family to such fame was winning three grand championships in four years at the annual Memphis in May barbecue competition, a record that still stands two decades later. He also hosts Praise the Lard, a huge BBQ contest that celebrated its 25th anniversary this past weekend. We were lucky enough to head there and see what makes the festival so outstanding.
Praise the Lard features sanctioned competition for both of the major BBQ circuits: the Memphis Barbecue Network, in which competitors compete on whole hog, pork shoulder, and/or ribs for a chance to go to Memphis in May; and the Kansas City Barbecue Society, in which competitors have to cook four different meats on a tight timeline, all judged blind. We’re going to take you inside this world where barbecue fanatics spend thousands of dollars on pigs and rigs, all for the chance to compete for hundreds of dollars and bragging rights.
It’s a competitive subculture, with almost 80 teams fighting for the trophies and seemingly half the town out to see and smell it all. But above all, it’s a social subculture — a big warmhearted family devoted to the delights of pork (pork shortages be damned!). Or as Mike Mills said to us, “Only barbecue could make this possible. I’m pretty sure the spaghetti people don’t get together like this.”
Check it all out in our slideshow from the weekend.