Amy Mills was born into the barbecue business. Her late father, Mike Mills, opened the first 17th Street Barbecue restaurant in 1985 in Murphysboro, Illinois. Since then, 17th Street Barbecue has expanded to include a second location as well as a nationally distributed sauce line. For decades, Mike was known as a barbecue legend, but it took Amy a while to carve her own path and figure out how she fit in, bringing something more to the table than being the founder’s daughter.
In this Voices In Food story, as told to Emily Laurence, Mills talks about making her own way, which includes writing the James Beard-nominated book “Peace, Love, and Barbecue,” as well as launching her own barbecue consulting company, OnCue Consulting. In the process of discovering her own personal connection to a food that has long been part of her life, her relationship with both barbecue and her dad changed over time. Here, she shares exactly how ― and she also reveals the number one barbecue tip people pay good money to learn from her.
I can’t remember a time when barbecue wasn’t part of my life. I remember my grandmother making sauce weekly. We always saved glass jars, like ketchup jars or mayonnaise jars ― anything that came with a lid. We would sterilize and save them for my grandmother, who would fill them all up with barbecue sauce, something she did well into her 90s. My dad opened a barbecue restaurant in 1985 and his friends would always drop by for lunch. So there has always been barbecue in my life.
Working with my dad in the barbecue business was not something I planned on doing. After I graduated high school, I went off to journalism school. Then, I worked in advertising, marketing and public relations living in Dallas and Boston. Very slowly, I started doing some marketing work for the family business; you could say I eased into it.
“The stories to me are everything. A good story just makes food taste better.”
Around 2000, my dad helped open a restaurant in New York City. Since it wasn’t too far from where I was living in Boston, I’d hop on the train and meet him in New York. I have really treasured memories of us working on that restaurant together. The more work I did with 17th Street Barbecue, the closer it brought my dad and me. It was how we really started to enjoy each other as adults. The more I saw exactly what he did, the more I admired him. We made a good team, too. I was the gas and he was the brake. I had a ton of ideas and he was the one who figured out which few we could realistically do.
I can pinpoint exactly when my relationship with barbecue really changed, becoming something I started caring deeply about. It was when I traveled all across the country with my dad to write “Peace, Love, and Barbecue.” I realized that the barbecue world was such a unique subculture of America and the stories were just so good. My dad and I would visit our barbecue friends, I’d turn on my tape recorder, ask a couple of questions and just let them talk. They would spout all these amazing stories and then there’d be a recipe thrown in. The stories to me are everything. A good story just makes food taste better. I think we’ve all eaten a meal that maybe wasn’t the best meal we’ve ever eaten from a culinary point of view, but we think of it so fondly because of the people we’re with. Working on that book was a turning point for me; I learned that really, really good barbecue ― or any food, for that matter ― is about the story just as much as the actual food.
“Something people often get wrong about barbecue is falling-off-the-bone ribs. It’s not supposed to fall off the bones. If that happens, that means it’s been boiled or overcooked.”
It’s why I’m so passionate about helping barbecue entrepreneurs actualize their own unique stories through my consulting business. At the end of the day, food is about people. At this point, I have consulted for thousands of barbecue entrepreneurs. The number one question they ask me is how to hold the meat and make it taste good all day. Here’s what I tell them: You have to have a good process for holding it. Anyone can make great barbecue and it tastes great when it comes right out of the pit. But you have to be able to serve it all day. The key to this is to not expose the barbecue to air; air is the enemy of barbecue.
Something people often get wrong about barbecue is falling-off-the-bone ribs. It’s not supposed to fall off the bones. If that happens, that means it’s been boiled or overcooked. You want to be able to take a clean bite and have a little tug as you take a bite of those ribs. The other thing people often get wrong is oversmoking their meat. Smoke should be an ingredient, not an overwhelming flavor. My dad used to say that barbecue should be a rodeo in your mouth: You should be able to taste the meat itself and a kiss of smoke and spice in the form of sauce.
Like many businesses, the pandemic has been hard for us but we’re bouncing back now. We bought a building around the corner from our restaurant where we’ll be producing our own barbecue sauce. The front of the building will be a cafe serving breakfast, lunch and coffee. There will be a little gourmet food market, too. People started cooking more at home during the pandemic, something many have continued to do. Of course we want people to come in and eat our barbecue and we need that to happen to keep the restaurants alive. But we also want people to go home and make their own. That’s where you start creating your own stories. Nothing tastes as good as the food you make at home.