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Chapter One BARBEQUE = FOOD + FAMILY + LOVE
My daddy, Leon Mills, smoking some meat over his homemade pit in our backyard. Mama Faye is convinced he invented barbecue.
The strongest memory from my childhood is waking up to the smell of smoke. I'd lie in my bed with my eyes still closed, take a deep breath, and smile. That aroma meant that we'd be having a good supper that night.
Back in the 1940s, long before barbecue was fashionable, my daddy, Leon Mills, had already been up since before daylight, burning wood and making his own charcoal. His pits were nothing more than two holes he had dug in the ground. One hole was simply for prepping the wood. He placed a rock on each side of the second hole and laid a grate over the top. He'd burn down the wood in the first pit and shovel the red-hot coals into the other, where the meat would be smoking.
We weren't the only ones who enjoyed the end results. Daddy was the neighborhood pit boss. Lots of neighbors would bring their meat over, and he'd smoke it for them. He'd cook chickens, pork shoulders, whole hogs basically any cut or kind of meat they could find or afford at the time. By day, Daddy traveled from town to town, selling cigarettes, candy, and soap products for the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet company. By night, he was the life of the party, tending his pits and holding court with the neighbors and friends who gathered around. I'm fairly sure some liquor was involved, too, but my mama, Faye, would never admit to that. As soon as Daddy's car pulled into the driveway, a steady stream of neighbors would come over to see about their meat.
My mama truly believed that Daddy actually invented barbecue. Never mind that cavemen were smoking meat thousands of years ago. "That wasn't real barbecue," she was always quick to point out, somewhat indignantly. "They may have used smoke, but they had no grates and no sauce."
Sadly, Daddy died when I was nine, so the early years of my parents' marriage became family lore. Mama's often-repeated stories usually centered on barbecue: "We loved to camp as a family," Mama would tell me. "Your daddy would dig a pit and throw a grate over it. Pretty soon the smell of smoke would be filling the air, and the entire campground would show up for the party."
The memory of the scent of that smoked pork has never left me. To this day, when I drive down the road with my window rolled down and I catch a whiff of that sweet, smoky aroma, it takes me right back to childhood. I refer to it now as "essence of pork." And I feel real fortunate to experience that smell every day.
Daddy made a barbecue sauce that family and friends raved about, and his dream was to bottle the sauce and open a barbecue joint. That plan never came to fruition. When he died at the age of 42, he left Mama Faye, as she was called by her grandchildren and half of Murphysboro, with three children to raise: Jeanette (age 11), me (9), and Mary Pat (who was just 15 months old). My older brothers, Landess and Bob, were already grown and married.
Mama Faye was always proud of her heritage and her upbringing; in fact, she considered herself to be somewhat of a blue blood. She came from a well- respected, upper-middle-class family in Southeast Missouri. Her father, Jim Landess, was a landowner, a merchant, and in later years a mortician who owned several funeral homes. She liked to remind us that she went to business college, which was somewhat unusual for a young woman in the 1920s. Mama and Daddy got married in 1925 and lived a fairly comfortable, middle-class life.
When Daddy died, Mama Faye had a little insurance money and three young children still at home. Her beginnings might not have been meager, but she knew how to adapt when she was faced with tough times. She always lived with dignity. I've heard many people ask her how she got through those years after Daddy died, and her answer was always the same. "I viewed it as a challenge," she'd say. Mama Faye took what life handed her and made both a life and a living. Her resourcefulness and resolve made a lasting impression on me.
She had to work very hard. The Fuller Brush company took her on as the first Fuller Brush woman in the country. She also clerked for my brother Landess in his wholesale notions and drug sundries business. And she made gallon after gallon of our locally famous family barbecue sauce to sell to friends and neighbors. She was clever, too. With what little money she had, Mama bought a piece of property with a two-story home and a small, separate garage. She converted the garage into a tiny house. We lived in the "cottage," as we called it, and converted the larger house into two apartments to rent out.
Leon and Faye Mills, circa 1948, posing in front of one of Daddy's smoldering pits
In 1941, when I was five months old, we moved from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to Murphysboro, Illinois. In the 1940s and '50s, Murphysboro was the small bustling county seat of Jackson County, and it had a variety of small industries, including shoe and glove factories. In Murphysboro, as in most places, there were a whole lot more poor people than there were wealthy people. I guess you could say we were nearer the poor end of the spectrum, but I'm not sure I ever realized that. We always had a warm, tidy home and clean clothes. They may not have been new clothes, but they were clean. And we always ate well, since all of my family are outstanding cooks.
The menus at our family gatherings usually revolved around smoked meats even in the dead of winter. We didn't call it "comfort" food back then, but that's exactly what it was. After Daddy died, my brothers and I took over smoking the meat. At just nine years old, helping build the fire and tend the pit made me feel grown-up and close to my dad. I suspect my brothers felt the same way, although we never talked about it. Our family suppers and picnics were a way to be together. At a very young age, it became apparent to me that barbecueand all of the preparation and family time that go along with itequaled a powerful combination of family, friends, traditions, and, most important, love.
Those memories have stayed with me my entire life. Every time I fire up the pit and cook a meal, whether for family, friends, or guests in my restaurants, I get that same heartwarming feeling that comes from nurturing and connecting with people.
Just after a swim: my sister Jeanette, sister-in-law Joyce Mills holding my baby sister, Mary Pat, and Daddy with his arm around me
Smoked Pork Butt
Daddy used to smoke all kinds of meat. Chicken, pork chops, pork shoulder, and pork butt were our favorites. A smoked pork butt is easy to manage and feeds a crowd. You can serve it sliced or pulled, and a 4- to 6-£d pork butt will take approximately 4 to 5 hours to cook. Don't plan on doing anything else during that time: You're going to need to babysit the meat. Fix yourself a cooler with an ample supply of beer, and get something to read or someone to talk to.
I prefer smoking bone-in pork butts. The bone adds more flavor to the meat, and it allows the heat to follow the bone deep into the meat, making the center of the meat cook faster and more evenly.
You'll need apple wood chips, a disposable aluminum pan, a meat thermometer, a mop (see Chapter 8), and a chimney starter or another small covered grill or bucket to keep additional hot coals.
1 pork butt (4 to 6 £ds), bone-in or boneless
Magic Dust (see page 67)
1 quart apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons kosher salt, finely ground
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cayenne
Apple City Barbecue Sauce (see page 54)
Mike's Crunchy Cole Slaw (see page 14)
Tenderize the meat by puncturing it with a fork. Season the pork butt liberally with the Magic Dust. Tenderize again. Return to the refrigerator overnight or for at least 4 hours.
Start a fire following the instructions on page 298.
Soak the apple chips in water for half an hour. Drain.
Remove the grate from the grill and place a disposable aluminum pan in the bottom of the grill or smoker. Arrange the medium-hot coals around the pan. If you're using a grill, it must have a lid. Spread out the wet wood chips on the coals. Replace the rack, close the grill, and check the temperature. It should be between 225 and 250 degrees. If the temperature is too high, open the lid to allow some heat to escape. You'll want to maintain this temperature inside the grill or smoker the entire time you're cooking. Open the lid to lower the temperature, or add more hot coals to raise the temperature as necessary.
Place the meat on the grate, fat side up, and close the lid.
Make the mopping sauce: Place the vinegar, water, oil, salt, chili powder, sugar, and cayenne in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly to thoroughly dissolve all ingredients. Set aside.
After about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, begin mopping the meat with the sauce every 30 to 45 minutes, or as necessary. Reposition the meat as necessary to avoid hot spots. Turn periodically to keep the meat from burning.
After about 4 hours, insert a meat thermometer into the center of the meat, not near the bone, and check the internal temperature. You'll want to reach an internal temperature of 165 to 170 degrees. This will take approximately 4 to 5 hours. The higher the internal temperature, the more tender the meat will be. If you want to pull the pork, the final internal temp should be 180 to 185 degrees. A temperature of 165 to 170 degrees is better for slicing the meat.
About 15 to 20 minutes before you remove the meat from the pit, mop the butt with the barbecue sauce.
To serve, slice or pull the pork from the bone, removing any big chunks of fat as you go. Shred the meat by hand, using two forks, or coarsely chop with a meat cleaver. You can also slice the pork butt. Eat the meat alone, or pile the shredded or chopped pork on a bun and top with a sprinkle of Magic Dust, some barbecue sauce, and a spoonful of the cole slaw.
Save leftovers for use in the other recipes in the book that call for barbecue. They'll keep in the freezer for about 1 month.
MAKES 15 TO 18 GOOD-SIZED SANDWICHES
Mama Faye believed that all children ought to learn to keep a clean house and a neat yard and to cook good, wholesome food. She also recommended we consider those skills when picking a husband or wife. I heeded her advice and chose two wives who were good cooks. Both of those wives are long gone from my life, though, so there must've been some other lesson about choosing that I missed.
Our entire family gets involved in making our favorite Southern-style side dishes for family gatherings. We've experimented with a lot of recipes over the years, and we're always trying new things. But there are certain dishes that make it to every event, and each relative has a few specialties that are always requested. Here are some of our tried-and-true favorites.
Daddy and me in 1942
My Sister Jeanette's Deviled Eggs
Chilled, creamy deviled eggs are truly a treat. The key to great deviled eggs is making sure the filling is very smooth with no lumps. You can do this by using the back of a fork to work out all of the lumps, by mixing the filling in a food processor, or by pushing the yolks through a fine sieve until they're powdered.
Deviled eggs are the first food to disappear at any picnic, family reunion, or church supper. My sister Jeanette and my sister-in-law Judy make the best ones in our family. They're easy to prepare but time-consuming. If you have a family like ours, roughly 40 at any given gathering, that means the person assigned to bring deviled eggs has to make at least 80 so everyone can have 2. Of course, it never fails that at least one person sneaks more than his share.
Deviled eggs are best shown off on china or glass deviled egg plates. All the women in my family have ceramic ones especially made by Mama Faye.
12 large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, finely ground
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
1 dash hot sauce (such as Tabasco)
1/4 cup Miracle Whip salad dressing
1 tablespoon Magic Dust (see page 67) or paprika
Sweet pickles or olives for garnish (optional)
Place the eggs in a large stainless steel saucepan and cover the eggs completely with cold water. Bring the water to a rapid boil and boil for 2 minutes. Cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Allow to stand for 25 to 30 minutes. Drain and cover the eggs with cold water. If you cook your eggs this way, you won't get that dark circle you'll sometimes see around the egg yolk.
Carefully remove the peel from the eggs and slice in half lengthwise. Remove the yolk and place in a medium bowl. Add the sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar, mustard, and hot sauce. Mix with a fork or an electric mixer (or blend in a food processor). Gradually add the Miracle Whip, blending well until smooth and creamy; add a few more tablespoons of Miracle Whip if needed and make sure there are no lumps.
Using a teaspoon, fill the egg whites with the yolk mixture and sprinkle the top with Magic Dust or paprika. Garnish with a sliver of sweet pickle or a slice of olive. Place on a deviled egg plate and refrigerate until chilled.
John Hudgins's Skillet Cornbread
Jeanette's husband, John Hudgins, comes from a long line of good cooks, too, and he's pretty particular about his food. We welcomed his family recipesand him, tooright into our own. We especially like his skillet cornbread, and to this day he makes it when we're having barbecue, chili, or the ham and beans we always eat on New Year's Day.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups coarsely ground yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt, finely ground
1 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
1 large egg
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Coat a 9-inch cast-iron skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil.