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.
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Welcome to Murphysboro for the 25th annual Praise the Lard barbecue competition.
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Mike and Amy Mills pose with friends from the Townsend spice company, who manufacture 17th Street's famed "Magic Dust."
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The high-school marching band kicks off Friday night's festivities by marching through the campgrounds.
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The Shawnee Parkway Crackland Butts fire up their smoker for the whole-hog competition.
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Another team's whole hog has been on the smoker since noon and has at least twelve more hours to go.
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Everybody has their secret rub, sauce, or technique, and more than a few sell them, too. Matt Whiteford of the Clark Kent Super Smokers team from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, shows off his line.
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In BBQ competition country, if you've got trophies, you make sure everybody knows it. The Tennessee-based Boars' Night Out team displays a row of Memphis in May awards.
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But nobody has as many trophies as Mike Mills, whose now-retired team remains the only three-time Memphis in May Grand Champion. This is about a third of his haul, in the attic above the restaurant. Amy says he looks at them and counts the cost of winning them — "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand ... "
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Friday's public festivities start with a barbecue buffet. Teens from the local Key Club stand at the ready ...
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What 17th Street Bar & Grill is famous for: baby back ribs.
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Tonight, the buffet will serve 2,000 people — a quarter of the population of Murphysboro.
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Mike Mills says the secret of his sauce is that it reminds you a little bit of every style of barbecue, from vinegary North Carolina dips to thick Kansas City sauce. For the secret of his barbecue ... you'll have to pay to come to his and Amy's seminars, as many in the business do.
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Meanwhile, the teams use dinner as another excuse to fire up the grill and show off.
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The party will run tent to tent well into the night.
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While out on the street, the block party continues into the late hours as well.
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However late the party goes, it's business the next morning. Well, after the blessing and shot of Gentleman Jack performed by mail-order Reverend (and competitor) Randy Twyford, who left us with this thought: "The biggest prize to take home from a contest is a new friendship."
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Though there's every style of cooker here, Ole Hickory seems to be the brand of choice. Chris Mills of the Flying Pigs shows off his pork shoulders; he has a special Mike Mills–signature model, which he should, since Mike's his uncle.
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Shawnee Parkway Crackland Butts' whole hog is looking good.
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Mike welcomes the judges. This is a dual sanction competition, meaning there will be judges for two circuits with very different rules and procedures. As he explains to the Memphis judges, they're judging three of each category against each other — "So if they're bad, very bad, and really bad, bad still wins."
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You can enter any or all of three categories in Memphis competion: whole hog, shoulder, and ribs. Competition involves two parts: a presentation at your campsite and a blind judging so that, as a couple of people say, "You can't win on bullshit alone." There are a lot of well-dressed whole hogs this morning.
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Judges are welcomed into the tents, often made up as homey as possible, and given a spiel on why a team's method produces the most perfect pig.
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If there's a team to beat today, it's multiple-Memphis-winners Boars' Night Out, who give a very professional presentation on the superiority of the artisanal Berkshire hogs they smoke.
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Duce's Wild is a team run by Duce Raymond (right) and backed by his uncle Dave, better known for his Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce. They're entered in both Memphis and Kansas City competition, though they're a little worried because their ace pitmaster is off — because his wife is giving birth this weekend. Women!
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Rev. Randy Twyford preaches to the judge — or maybe sweet-talks would be a better term. Each team presents three times, to an individual judge, back to back for fifteen minutes each.
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Memphis has a blind-judging component, but Kansas City is all blind-judged. On the Kansas City side, competitors have to deliver four meats — pork shoulder, pork ribs, beef brisket, and chicken — on a strict schedule for anonymous judging.
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Ted Coleman, half of the only all–African American team, the Mascoutah SmokeMasters, prepares his brisket. He's not happy with it; it could have used another couple of hours, but Kansas City keeps a tight schedule.
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Mary Coleman delivers the brisket for the judges. It's logged in and then given a random number; only the ladies who logged it in know which box goes with which team.
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After the judges try them, the entries are set out for visitors to look over.
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Mike Mills delivers the news to the 4 Smokin' Butts team: They made the Memphis finals in both whole hog and ribs.
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In the finals, 4 Smokin' Butts presents to a team of four new judges simultaneously.
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Every competition on the circuit has a unique trophy. Murphysboro is in apple orchard country, so most of the trophies are glass apples blown by a local artist.
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Mike takes the stage to announce the winners.
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Duce's Wild shouldn't have worried — they take third in shoulder on the Memphis side and eighth in ribs on the Kansas City side.
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St. Louis Black Iron BBQ takes Grand Champion on the Kansas City side, including a chainsaw-carved pig trophy and a check from Kingsford charcoal, presented by Miss Apple Festival.
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4 Smokin' Butts wins shoulder and takes second in ribs, a very strong showing.
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But it's Boars' Night Out which takes the grand champion prize on the Memphis side.