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“The Legend” of barbecue opens centennial dinner

Tuesday, September 9, 2008 | 8:50 p.m. CDT; updated 10:31 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 15, 2008

COLUMBIA — Mike "The Legend" Mills is excited to bring what he calls his Southern/Memphis style of barbecue to MU because he thinks the Midwest has some of the best barbecue in the country. It's the mecca of barbecue, he said.

But those used to Kansas City-style barbecue better get ready.

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"I get a kick out of giving things a different kick," Mills drawled. "I'm looking forward to being able to feed a different crowd."

Wednesday night, Mills will serve up ribs, smoked pork butt and baked beans to the hundreds attending a sold-out barbecue bash launching the Missouri School of Journalism's Centennial Celebration through Friday. The MU Concert Jazz Band led by Douglas J. Leibinger will entertain the crowd on the north side of Mizzou Arena.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Mills was pulling into the parking lot at Mizzou Arena to start slow-cooking the meat which he said improves flavor and reduces shrinkage. In addition to fruit wood, he prefers a milder smoke because he thinks it should be an ingredient like salt or pepper and not a dominating flavor. And his baked beans? Mills uses five types of beans.

Mills' nickname "The Legend" came from accolades in the arena of barbecue. In the 1990s, he was co-captain of the Apple City Barbecue Team, which became a four-time World Champion and a three-time Grand World Champion.

"In 1988, I started a barbecue contest in Murphysboro (Ill.) and created a team and went on the competition circuit to draw people to our town," Mills said. "We were fortunate in our endeavors and enjoyed it."

He credits his family for imparting many of the skills he still uses. His father taught him how to barbecue using a hole in the ground with a metal grate over it, and the family recipe helped inspire him as well. Mills did not start barbecuing professionally, however, until 1994.

"Growing up, I went to school to be a dental technician and have done that for 38 years," Mills said. "I barbecued as a sideline business."

Before he began competing, he became the owner of the 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, but barbecuing was still not his priority.

"I did it to sell beer," Mills joked. "The only thing I had on the menu was a barbecue sandwich and a burger."

Mills now owns and watches over seven nationally acclaimed barbecue restaurants: four 17th Street Bar & Grill restaurants in southern Illinois and three Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas. He also works as a partner at Blue Smoke, a restaurant in New York City.

Mills' daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, a 1986 graduate of the MU School of Journalism, helped co-write the book "Peace, Love, and Barbecue" with her father. Nominated for a 2006 James Beard Foundation award and winner of the 2006 National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence, the book details stories from Mills and his buddies about their experiences barbecuing and reveals several of their recipes.

"Whenever I was home, I would hear these stories from my dad and his friends; it was just a slice of Americana that needed to be heard," said Mills Tunnicliffe, who works in public relations for her father and travels the country teaching business executives proper social skills with her company, "The Proper Manner."

Mills Tunnicliffe will return to MU to attend the Centennial not only to catch up with friends and accompany her father but to express her gratitude for the experience and education she received.

"The skills I learned at Mizzou helped me land some fabulous high-profile jobs in advertising, PR and direct mail," said Mills Tunnicliffe. "And that amazing variety of experiences translates into what I do in our family business ... I wouldn't know how to do any of those things without my solid J-School education."


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