JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
July Fourth weekend is traditionally a time when the grills are hot and people around the country are testing their barbecue prowess. To honor the smoke and sweat that come along with it, we took a little trip this weekend with the authors of a new book, "Peace, Love & Barbecue." We wanted to talk about what makes outdoor cooking such a primal draw. We started on the hot pavement outside our front door.
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LUDDEN: We are standing outside of NPR headquarters. We've got barbecue master, Mike Mills, and his daughter--Amy Mills Tunnicliffe. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. MIKE MILLS (Co-author, "Peace, Love & Barbecue"): It's nice of you all to have us here.
LUDDEN: Now you've come to Washington to cook on the National Mall as part of the July Fourth celebrations here. You have a restaurant in Murphysboro, Illinois...
Mr. MILLS: Yes, ma'am...
LUDDEN: ...your hometown. You also...
Mr. MILLS: ...I go under 17th Street Bar & Grill.
LUDDEN: ...have a restaurant in New York and Las Vegas. You're the three-time grand world champion of the Memphis in May International Barbecue Festival. And now you're very kind to take some time out and spend with us for a little adventure.
Mr. MILLS: You know, that's what it's all about whether it happens to be the real barbecue or even grilling, you know--which is a little bit of difference--I really enjoy that.
LUDDEN: Well, I'm hungry. Are you?
Mr. MILLS: I'm really hungry.
LUDDEN: Let's go.
Mr. MILLS: Let's go.
(Soundbite of doors shutting)
LUDDEN: We've asked Mike and his daughter to come along to a local restaurant where we hope to persuade Mills to divulge some of his barbecue secrets. As we drive, he tells us it's hard to be a traveling barbecue chef.
Mr. MILLS: I have several mobile pits. They happen to b--this is the Fourth of July and they're all in use.
LUDDEN: So now, Mike Mills is in Washington pitless.
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LUDDEN: But the barbecue business is a close community. He's made a few calls and found someone who can donate what he needs.
Mr. MILLS: And I said, `Well, what do you have?' He said, `Well, just one out in my backyard.' And they--he said `The Air Force used to use it.' And I said `It'll be perfect.' I've never seen it. I don't know what it is. But I'll figure out how to use it.
But this is just the way they are. I get this same thing in southern Illinois and also a lot in Vegas. I'm coming to town to do such and such an event. Do you have--I need a--where can I get some equipment?
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LUDDEN: Well, here we are now in Glover Park and we'll find a place to park and see how good the food is.
(Soundbite of pots and pans being handled)
LUDDEN: We've arrived at a bustling joint called Rockland's. It's tiny, just one table and a row of bar stools in a bay window. A row of old meat cleavers hangs from the ceiling of the open kitchen.
Mr. MILLS: What have we got going on here?
LUDDEN: Mike heads straight for the grill.
Mr. MILLS: That's wood-fired?
LUDDEN: There are ribs, chicken, green onions for garnish. We finally manage to pull Mike Mills away from the flames and frenzy of the smoke-filled kitchen, and we sit down a few feet over at the large wooden table. Mike tells us his barbecue fame has only come after three decades spent in a completely different career.
Mr. MILLS: I made prosthetic appliances for dentists: crowns, bridges, partials, dentures. But I always barbecued on the side. I actually didn't get in the barbecue business until 1994.
LUDDEN: And you were how old then?
Mr. MILLS: Oh, too old. I was in my '50s, early '50s at that point in time.
LUDDEN: OK, so all kinds of people now are listening, thinking `Hey, I could still do it.'
Mr. MILLS: It's never too late. I barbecue every day or eat barbecue every day of some type.
LUDDEN: There's never too much?
Mr. MILLS: Never too much.
LUDDEN: I don't...
Mr. MILLS: We need to eat.
LUDDEN: ...want your food to get cold. Dig in.
Mr. MILLS: Hand me one of those--hand me--thank you. She just handed me a big old spare rib there. I love them.
LUDDEN: There's a lot of regional competition when it comes to barbecue. I mean, you were just told here you're going to have real barbecue, and I bet you hear that everywhere you go. Can you tell me--what are the differences between barbecue in, say, the Southeast vs. the West? You know, Memphis vs. Kansas?
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Mr. MILLS: The majority of it is going to be in your sauces. Let's say in the Kansas City area, it's going to be very sweet, molasses sweet, honey sweet and maybe just a little bit spicy. You get into Texas and you'll find more ketchup. It'd be the same way in the North. You get into the Memphis area, which is where--the style that I like--you'll find more dry rubs. But sauce can also be dry. It doesn't have to be wet. In other words, a dry rub--and/or a salt and pepper can be considered a sauce. It's just a dry sauce.
LUDDEN: Take a few more bites and then I'll ask you another question. Oh, they're good.
Mr. MILLS: They've got great flavor. I haven't tried...
LUDDEN: Really good.
Mr. MILLS: ...these baby-backs yet, but...
LUDDEN: Now another big debate is the--charcoal vs. gas. Can I ask where you come down on that?
Mr. MILLS: As I lick my fingers, because they're good, in this day and age you're going to--everything will eventually--all of the old-timers that I've been to, they are gradually switching over to have either the gas or electric assistance. One of the reasons for this is, barbecuing is time consuming anyway.
Mr. MILLS: Who's going to watch the pit 18 hours, 12 hours, whatever it--during the night and make sure that pit's going to stay up to temperature? Otherwise, you're going to be married to this restaurant.
LUDDEN: Married to the pit. Is there such a thing as `real barbecue' or the `best barbecue'?
Mr. MILLS: There's a lot of `real barbecue.' Whatever you think in your mind and to your taste buds is the best flavor is real and the best there is to you.
LUDDEN: It's a comfort type thing? It's a...
Mr. MILLS: It's a comfort type thing.
LUDDEN: ...comfort food.
Mr. MILLS: If I can make you say that reminds me of home, or that reminds me--if I can bring back that memory to you, I've done my job.
LUDDEN: Mike Mills' own notion of comfort barbecue goes back to childhood. He starts his book with a story about his dad back in the 1940s. He was a traveling salesman peddling cigarettes and toothbrushes. Leon Mills died at just age 42, but Mike remembers that in every spare moment his dad was obsessed with the art of barbecue. A photo in the book shows him tending a homemade pit in the family's back yard.
Mr. MILLS: It was just a way of life. You know, he enjoyed other people. You know, he loved to hunt and fish. He mainly fished more than he hunted because he could barbecue while he was fishing. He could kind of get everything on and he could go over to the bank and go fishing and...
LUDDEN: Was he always seeking that perfect barbecue?
Mr. MILLS: You know it. All of us are still seeking that perfect barbecue. I don't care how many years you've been in business or how many years you've been barbecuing, you're always seeking to make it better.
LUDDEN: Amy, can I ask you, did your dad pass on the barbecue bug early or did...
Ms. AMY MILLS TUNNICLIFFE (Co-author, "Peace, Love & Barbecue"): Well, it's funny. I lived in Dallas right after college, and I was so excited when I would see barbecues or my company would be having a barbecue and I would go expecting this flavor of home. And, of course, it was nothing like what I grew up with. I tried everywhere looking for that flavor. And it took me awhile to understand that I could really only get that at home.
LUDDEN: This is July Fourth weekend. All over the country people are standing over their pits and their grills. If you had one piece of advice, for the amateur chefs out there, what would it be?
Mr. MILLS: Turn down the heat. Use a little less charcoal and take a little more time. Do not keep flipping the meat over and over because that dries it out.
LUDDEN: Oh, really?
Mr. MILLS: You can move it around, but don't keep flipping it. Enjoy what you're doing. There's great pleasure in turning out a great piece of meat.
LUDDEN: Mike Mills is the author of "Peace, Love & Barbecue" along with his daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe. Thanks both so much for joining us for lunch.
Mr. MILLS: It's been a real treat. I feel very honored to have been able to be on the show and come here to Rockland's and have a great meal.
LUDDEN: If only we could all go take a nap now.
Mr. MILLS: Yeah.
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LUDDEN: You can learn more about Mike Mills barbecue secrets and fine recipes at our Web site, npr.org. And if you have questions for Mike Mills about the secrets of good barbecuing, send them to us at email@example.com.
And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.