Interview with Mike Mills, owner of 17th Street Bar and Grill

Just a quick clarification, my thoughts/observations are in [brackets].

In our dialogue, my words are in italics, and Mike’s are not. 

 

[As I walk into Mike Mills Office on 17th street, I can’t but help but first notice a photo of him and famed comedian Aziz Ansari on the wall, along with numerous other photos, many of his Apple City Barbecue Team. I step into what looks like the break room/lunch area. There’s an ashtray on the wide table he’s sitting at, I get the feeling that there’s something poetically important in the fact that Mike smokes in his own office, and seemingly is the only one who does so.]

 

Great office, Mike.

 

Pardon?

 

Great office.

 

Well thank you.

 

Well I have a little thing I wrote for you, then I’m gonna ask you some questions—so I’m gonna read that first. It’s a little sappy—these are all the things I learned about you from my research.

 

Okay.

 

One could say that the measure of a man not only comes from his accomplishments, but from how much he is loved by others. Your 2005 book that you created with your Daughter Amy, Peace Love and Barbecue, shows both of those sides of you, your passion and your love, as you said to Rich of GrillingWithRich.com, “The first chapter title of Peace, Love, and Barbecue says it all: Barbecue = Friends + Family + Love.” And that book that you and your daughter created 11 years ago is STILL in Amazon.com’s top 100 best sellers list in the Food category. Did you know that?

 

No. Had no clue. Whenever we wrote that book, they told us that it would never be a bestseller, but that it would probably last for years, and I know that those books—I know enough about the publishing world that I’m gonna say, recipe books—you usually sell less than one thousand copies, and then they’re obsolete. But I think that the human stories in this book, along with the recipes is what has made it last.

 

PorkBarellBBQ.com called it “one of the most acclaimed books ever written about barbecue.”

 

Really?

 

And the book was nominated for the 2006 James Beard Foundation Award and received the 2006 National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. But the accomplishments don’t stop there for you at all: 17th street in Murphysboro is listed as one of the 33 best BBQ joints in America by Thrill list.com. And Porkbarrelbbq.com went on to Compare your Apple City BBQ team of the 1990’s to that of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle—

 

That’s cool, I wasn’t aware of that.

 

And they went on to say that your Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-Off has become one of the few “Bucket List” barbecue contests that every team would like to cook at least once in their career. TableLog.com called you the Michael Phelps of grilling. BigAppleBBQ called you the most decorated Pitmaster in America. You were featured on the most watched morning news program in the world, Good Morning America, and they have THREE separate pages on their website dedicated to your recipes.

 

Really!? I did not know that either… [Mike Laughs] You’ve done some good research here!

 

At Memphis in May your team won 4-time World Champions and three-time Grand World Champions. You were the 1992 Grand Champion of the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest, you’re the 1992 Winner of Jack Daniel’s Sauce Contest. In October, 2008 you were honored with the Pioneer of Barbecue award at the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest. Your food was even good enough for you to receive Air Force One Clearance. And last but not least, You’re the only Pitmaster whose oral history was recorded for posterity at the Smithsonian Institute. And yet when Grilling with Rich asked you what your greatest accomplishment was? You said, “I hope it hasn’t happened yet.”

 

[Mike laughs] You know, I say I’ve been very fortunate, and very lucky to be at the right stop at the right time, but on the other hand, I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get…. [Mike gives me a strange look.]  You might be one of the only people—other than my daughter Amy and a few people that work here—to know about the Smithsonian institute thing… that was pretty cool, I had no clue what that was going to amount to or anything else. But yeah, they taped it and recorded it and it’s there if someone ever wants to look it up.

 

It’s part of American historybecause barbeque, some would say, is the most thoroughly American food.

 

I agree with that.

 

Pizza—Italy. Hamburgers—sounds German. But BBQ is what I would say, the most American food, and so the fact that you’re the only pit master recorded there—that’s really something.

 

It is, as I said, I’ve been very, very fortunate. And I still feel that same way today, in the things that I’ve had the opportunity to do, the people that I’ve met, the friendships that I’ve made over a period of years, it’s been incredible, it’s absolutely been incredible…. Do you have more on there?

 

I have a little bit more.

 

Okay.

 

Now there’s one article that you have up on the wall at the restaurant [17th street] I found it to be so interesting

 

[At this point I knew that the next few things I had to say he would either love to hear, or it would really piss him off, I wasn’t sure what was about to happen next.]

 

and you have the pictures of Bill Clinton on the wall—the picture of you two, and the whole thing about him wanting you to come be the chef at the White House, it’s just unbelievable, it’s amazing.

 

That whole opportunity was amazing. And the other thing is, they paid for it. [Mike laughs] Because whenever that happened, they called, and wanted to know if we’d be available—Are you kiddin!? I had no idea whether they were going to pay for it or not, at that point in time it made no difference, I just wanted the opportunity. And after it all happened—y’know, it’s not a matter of… if you like’em. It makes no difference what your politics are, that’s the other part about barbeque—and I’ll come to that here in just a minute—it’s the person, and the stature that they happen to hold, and y’know, I respect anybody, I don’t care who they are, whether it’s Bill Clinton or… Donald Trump—whoever happens to hold that office is holding a high office, even if it’s some CEO of some large corporation, I respect’em. But the main thing out of all of that is—and I’ve always had this feeling—it’s probably something taught to me by mother: There’s nobody any better than you are. Makes no difference. Now they might hold a title, or hold this or that, and you should respect that, but at the same time—they might have more money might have more everything—but they’re no better than you are. We all wear a pair of shoes. Bill Clinton might have fifty pair of cowboy boots, I don’t know, but he can only wear one pair at a time, and that’s all I can wear. His may cost five thousand dollars, mine may cost a hundred, but still… my feet are covered. [Mikes eyes are that of complete sincerity.] That’s the way I feel about anybody, I respect’em for the stature that they have, it doesn’t mean I like’em… Whenever our team got the chance to cook for him when he went over to the university, there’s something about that man that—when he enters a room, you don’t even have to see’em, you can feel it—he’s got a charisma that’s unbelievable. They had bought meals that were prepared by the university, and they had to buy’em, but they took and donated all those meals to one of the Homes over in Carbondale, they didn’t go to waste, they didn’t want them to go to waste—but it was a sack lunch. It had an egg salad, sandwich, apple, and whatever else they happen to have in there…. maybe a banana. After it was all said and done, the head security man—not Clinton’s personal head security but the security man of that whole operation—came in to the restaurant and you could see the weight was off his shoulders, and he had the night off, he sat down and he said: “I want to have a drink.” And I said: “I want to sit down and have a drink with you, I want to ask you a few questions,” and one of them was: “How did you know that I wasn’t some sort of a cook that would’ve have poisoned the president?” He looked at me with this smile and he said: “We checked you out.” I had no clue that they had checked me out before they came here. That was quite an experience to be able to do that. I also feel very fortunate about Good Morning America. I’ve been on there, I don’t know, four or five times. I don’t know whether it’ll happen again this year, it didn’t happen last year because they cut out the cooking program. I might add, I was also on the Today Show. They came to Murphysboro back in 1990, and the storage shed wasn’t over here then that was an empty lot. And they set up there and filmed live, from here, back to Chicago, on out to New York, us barbequing, at that time it was Al Roker… Something you didn’t have to mention, I think it was 2007, I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, over in Kansas City, which made me very proud. That was pretty cool.

 

That’s one I didn’t know. I didn’t catch that one.

 

You did a lot of research there!

 

Yes, I did. And I have one more thing… I’ve come into your restaurant so much, and I kept on seeing this article on the wall, the one about Bill Clinton, and how he made a deal with you, that he entered into what you called a “Southern Gentlemen’s Agreement” by shaking your hand.  And Bill Clinton, being the former Governor of Arkansas, his whole persona is that of a True Southern Gentleman. And if he were to go against that promise, if he couldn’t adhere to a True Southern Gentlemen’s Agreement, it would be like his whole persona was a fraudHe would be the man who only SOLD himself as a TRUE Southern Man. What are your thoughts on that?

 

I agree with that. What the situation was, was this: (The pictures down at the bar) It was all over with, and I was over standing underneath this tree listening to his speech and he came out into the crowd and that type of thing. At that point in time—I mean—there were helicopters in the air, there were snipers on the roof, because he came there to dispel the rhetoric that was being puttin out that he was going to cut out college scholarships, and he was there to tell that students that this was not true. That there would be scholarships available. Of course all the news media was there for this announcement, but he picked Southern Illinois to do it at. Anyway, he walked out, and I was standing under the tree, he stopped and shook my hand. I told him—I don’t remember the exact conversation per say, but part of it that led up to it is I told’em: “I want to come to your house, (the White House), and cook,” That’s what I told’em. And he shook my hand and he said: “It’s a deal.” To me, him being a southern gentleman, that’s a contract. Well it never happened… And I understand, y’know, I didn’t really think it would ever happen. In fact—he was coming to Murphysboro, as a group of walked over to his limo, the phone rang, he answered the phone and he talked to’em for just a moment or two. He hung up and he said: “We’re going to have to change our plans”, and he apologized, because at that point, all the security and everything was all comin’ to Murphysboro. It was kind of strange, because, at that particular point in time, I was remolding in Murphysboro—and all the siding was stacked up in the parking lot—And I thought at all times to have all these people here and all these cameras and everything else, and this place looked like this. I did not know until I got back over here, that the security was all around this whole neighborhood, and they had called and informed the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department not to come into this area. They didn’t mind a natural group of people that happened to be here, they wanted it to be a natural situation, not a staged situation—because if everyone found out he was gonna be here, they’d all been out in the street, in the restaurant all lined up—that’s not what they wanted. Of course the police, they were calling here wanting to know why weren’t they supposed to be in this area, what was goin on—the president had his own people in place, and didn’t even want the police to put it on the police scanner, because people scan police scanners and they would know he was coming.

 

They wanted a natural, controlled, environment.

 

Yes, a natural situation.

 

That was controlled at the same time.

 

Yes, it was all controlled. If you’d had been walkin down the street and walked in it would have been fine.

 

But you couldn’t come in from out of town.

 

They didn’t want the possibility of any… crazy people, cooks, whatever you want to call’em, showing up, because it would just be too good of an opportunity for something to happen, but naturally it’s not apt to. I mean—you wouldn’t know if you were walking down the street and walked in that he was here—when you put something on the air waves anymore it’s just amazing how it will… It’s like people running to a fire     . Anyway, what had happened was they were having trouble in Bosnia, and he had to get back to the white house for a conference. It was very crucial that he got back so that’s also whenever we got to take the food—I called over and had them get the food ready—and we met at the airport to put it on the plane. That’s actually how it all transpired and went down. It was pretty cool. Y’know it was just amazing that everything that I told’em, I said—man if he’s gonna come over here I said we got this parking lot and it’s full of trash and all that and they said: “Yeah, we know.” Everything you told, or said—

 

They already knew.

 

Yeah. They knew it. They said, “We know. We’ll take care of it. It’s alright” It was really a learning experience for me… I also have something—him being from Arkansas, and being the governor of Arkansas—they have an award that they give called The Arkansas Traveler award. If somebody does something that makes the life better, or enhances the state of Arkansas—makes life better for the people—someone can put them in for what they call the Arkansas Travelers award. I had helped start a barbeque contest in Batesville Arkansas, and through this effort, one of the guys that—he was a medical doctor, down there, a heart specialist, named doctor Stalker—anyway, he wrote up that the Apple City Barbeque team be awarded the Arkansas Traveler award. We got this award, and of course it has to be signed by the governor, and Bill Clinton was the governor at that point in time. And that’s the only way you can ever get this reward. I got that same award re-signed by him, when he was president… The only thing that I didn’t get it on it—he resigned it but didn’t put “President” beside it. I probably got the only one in the world… What are the odds of another governor from Arkansas giving someone an Arkansas Traveler award, and then become president, and resign it.

 

Chances are slim.

 

Very slim. Not impossible. But pretty slim. But that’s pretty cool too…

 

See, you had the history with Arkansas, and Clinton was the Arkansas governor… I have a theory, my theory is that he DID want you in the white house, but his consultants wouldn’t allow it because he loved your barbeque TOO much.

 

[Mike Laughs]

 

He loved it so much that that’s all he would eat. In fact, his diet throughout his whole life was so limited, that in 2004 he had to undergo a quadruple bypass, and in 2010 he underwent another emergency surgery and was ordered by his doctors to go Vegan for the rest of his life. Did you know that?

 

Really? I did not know that.

 

 I think it had nothing to do with the quality, or the lack of quality of your foodI think it was BECAUSE of your supreme quality that made him think twice, because he KNEW if you were his chef, that he could never, EVER go vegan!

 

[Mike laughs] I like the way you think. [we both laugh] I can’t say you’re wrong, I like it! That’s good. That’s good…. Where’d you find out all this information?

 

From many different sources, I can show you all the different places that I pulled this information.

 

Normally, most people that I talk to in this type of thing are uh… I’m gonna say—they haven’t done the research you’ve done, it’s pretty incredible. I gotta compliment you on that… That is pretty cool.

 

Thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

 

Do you have any more information?

 

No, that’s all I have to say. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

 

No… but that’s pretty incredible. [Some of Mike’s employees enter the room.] Hey Chris, you might want to hear this, these are probably things you don’t even know.  Danny, read’em what you wrote.

 

[I read back all the stuff about the comparisons to Mickey Mantle, the Smithsonian recording, etc.]

Do you want me to go on?

 

Oh yeah! [Chris laughs.] Take it right from the top! He’s told me things that I forgot about!

 

[I go on. Many other employees gather around to listen.]

When he came up about the part with the Smithsonian institute, I told’em, you’re probably one of the only three people who know about that. I said I know my daughter Amy does, I do, now you. [everyone laughs.]

 

 

-By Danny Damian. 4/20/16

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 by Danny Damian

 

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