The epic Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest — an event sometimes referred to as the Super Bowl of Swine — is roaring back this week after a pandemic pause in 2020.
One familiar face will be missing, though. Mike Mills, the four-time grand champion, mentor, friend, father and fierce competitor who made a huge impression on so many died in December. Here are some warm remembrances of The Legend.
Way back when…
Some 30 years ago, when Memphis in May was still in its infancy, Mike Mills grabbed headlines when he shocked locals and took the top prize. He was, after all, considered a “yankee” who hailed from southern Illinois. How could he possibly win?
His subsequent appearances on stage during the awards ceremony proved that initial victory was no fluke. And, everyone who met this savvy pitmaster would confirm he was as Southern as they come, possessing those charming qualities of being a fantastic storyteller, a generous teacher and a fast friend.
Ardie Davis — a regular contributor to the National Barbecue News — summed up his appreciation for his longtime friend: “As the old saying, ‘He could talk a dog off a meat truck,’ especially when he was in charge of engaging onsite Memphis in May judges, extolling the outstanding qualities of the Apple City cooking team’s whole hog entry. Mike would look judges in the eyes, give them his undivided attention and convince them before they ever took a bite that they were about to partake of the greatest whole hog barbecue they would ever taste in their lifetime.”
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And there’s a room full of trophies to prove that point at Mills’ world-famous 17th Street BBQ restaurant in Murphysboro, Ill., the “mother ship” which has been regularly featured on Food Network and the Travel Channel.
Peace, Love and Barbecue
Further proof that Mike Mills generously shared his knowledge appeared in a very tangible way with the release in 2005 of Peace, Love and Barbecue, a wildly entertaining cookbook written with his daughter, Amy. The subtitle of that red-hot tome perfectly sets the tone: “Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales and Outright Lies From The Legends of Barbecue.” The forward was penned by Danny Meyer, the successful New York City restaurateur who sought Mills’ advice when opening up Blue Smoke.
For Amy, this year’s Memphis in May is understandably emotional: “This is a bittersweet week, getting ready for the first Memphis in May without my daddy. I was there in 1994 when Apple City Barbecue made history, winning its fourth World Champion in ribs and third World Grand Champion overall. We regrouped and began competing again in 2013 and we’ve switched to the whole hog category. We’ve been fortunate to walk the stage four of the last five years – an immeasurable thrill.”
Amy continued: “Mike taught me how to prep and cook a hog, but mostly he taught me how to lead as well as follow, and how to be a giver and not a taker. Watching Mike graciously interact with the public, and strategize and give advice to other competitors, was a lesson in fully immersing yourself in the competition world. The true measure of a skilled competitor is how he handles adversity. Watching him figure out what to do when our hog mysteriously didn’t show up and the only one available was fully frozen was a master class in moving swiftly to plan B.”
Howdy and a hug
Another grand champ, Brad Orrison from The Shed in Ocean Springs, Miss., said he’s incredibly grateful for Mike’s guidance through the years.
“I remember exactly where we met the first time 15 or 16 years ago,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I stopped him in his tracks, introduced myself and gave him a big hug.”
Mills later invited the greenhorn to compete at an event he organized on his home turf and when he saw what Orrison was cooking he exclaimed: “That’s the prettiest hog I’ve ever seen.”
“We didn’t do well in the competition and Mike knew I was disappointed. He told me again that was the prettiest hog he’d ever seen and then said: ‘If you can figure out how to make it taste worth a damn, you just might win Memphis in May one day.”
When The Shed team brought home the Grand Championship, Orrison said he was absolutely thrilled to see Mills in the crowd, cheering him on.
This year, Orrison’s returning to some time-honored recipes in the hopes of repeating. Follow the team on The Shed’s always engaging Instagram feed.
Longtime Memphis in May Barbecue judge, Ron Childers, was right there when Mills first burst onto the scene, forever changing the way teams went for the big prizes.
He recalled interviewing the man he calls the Godfather of Barbecue that first year: “He and Pat Burke introduced a method of cooking that changed competitive barbecue forever. I had the honor of interviewing Mike during an early morning newscast in May of 1990. That’s where he shared the secret of apple wood for smoking the meat and apple juice for basting and glazing. I’d never had such a unique and deliciously tasting rib up to that point. Apple City went on to win ribs and Grand Champion at Memphis in May.”
He added: “The following year other teams introduced their take on pork cooked with apple wood and apple juice but no one could come close to what Mike and Pat had discovered and mastered. They went on to Grand Champion Memphis in May again in 1992 and 1994. Since that time almost all teams now use some method of fruit wood for smoking and a fruit juice for cooking and that’s due to Mike and Apple City. I became a certified judge in 2000 and during that 20+ years I have had some absolutely amazing BBQ, but none that brings back the memory and taste of my first bite of that Apple City rib.”
Carey Bringle, also known as Peg Leg Porker, started competing around the same time as Mills and he’s sorely missing him as Memphis in May rolls around: “I loved Mike. He always made you feel like you were the most important guy in the world.”
In the competitive world of cooking meat low-and-slow, that spirit of camaraderie was much appreciated. “If he could, he’d help, no questions asked, no judgement,” Bringle said in a recent phone interview. “He never made you feel like you didn’t know what you were doing.”
If you spot Peg Leg Porker at this year’s Memphis in May, ask him to do his Mike Mills impression, a gravely voiced rendition he often trotted out to tease the champ.