It’s been a long road to the American Royal for Michael Mixon. Longer than the path from his family’s BBQ HQ in Unadilla, GA to Kansas City, by way of two stops in Texas and a couple more in Florida, all of them hundreds of miles apart. For Mixon, the 2017 World Series of Barbecue® has been a lifetime coming.
His first memory, he says, is of “my grandmother stirring up the sauce, saying, ‘This is how it’s supposed to taste.’ ”
Barbecue sauce runs through the Mixons’ veins. The family tradition has brought Michael to the Kansas Speedway to celebrate the cooking, the competition, and above all, the camaraderie.
This is life in the BBQ fastlane
The Royal is a fiercely competitive (and even more fiercely communal) gathering of grillers where everyone’s eager to show off their literal chops. This weekend Mixon’s cooking with his father -- “The winningest man in barbecue,” Myron Mixon -- in Sunday’s open competition portion.
But while Michael’s been refining his brisket to a mouthwatering miracle, he’s also raring to get the party going Friday night. He’s here before anyone else on Thursday morning to film a teaser calling all fans to attend his barnburner before the competition starts. It’s an alluring invitation, as most parties at this racetrack are closed to all but family and friends. Party with the Mixons, and you’ll quickly become both.
Everyone’s passionate... and eager to share
A member of the crew asks Michael a question about barbecue. He launches into an animated account of the craft’s regional nuances, sauce bases, and how some purists (in Texas of all places) challenge brisket’s right to qualify as barbecue -- a definition he’s ready to defend with his new spice rub. Even after years of these types of interactions, Michael clearly still enjoys engaging with BBQ fans of every skill set and knowledge base.
At breakfast, a couple in competition approaches Myron to pay their respects. He’s quickly bantering with them about pork breeds, siring for characteristics, and the merits of sauce versus letting the smoked meat speak for itself. Myron, a champion saucier himself, still likes to keep it on the side. Michael’s tastes are similarly reserved when discussing bases.
“The only mustard sauce I like is Daddy’s,” he says, “Sweet on the front, then eight seconds, it starts biting back.”
Yet in competition the pitmasters may have to choose between personal preference and what they know gains traction with the judges. “It comes down to the sauce these days,” says Michael. Vox populi.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
Located right by the entrance to The Royal, the site of the Cabo Wabo party sponsoring Mixon is a honeypot for fans of barbecue culture. A team from Germany shows up to shake his hand and take their picture with the smoker, the first of many that weekend. He greets them with the same exuberance he’ll show to old friends, and then watches them go with the smile still on his face.
“I love the international competitors,” he muses. Again and again this weekend you’ll hear how barbecue is family. However much time and money pitmasters invest in vying for the W at the ‘Que, they admire each other, and they adore the grill.
Ah yes, that smoker.
Nothing attracts as much attention as this black beast, designed to spec from Georgia, forged in New England, and given wheels and ape hangers in Florida so it might fume from anywhere. One woman trips as she slows down to admire it.
Friendly foes stop by to say hello and check out the hefty smoker, each one cheerfully welcomed by Mixon, who drops whatever he’s doing to greet them. This is southern hospitality at its best; he hands his cohorts gifts with an incessant, infectious belly laugh.
Mixon walks the fairground to give t-shirts and Caborita towers -- red drink dispensers ready to serve 2.5 liters -- to any friends he might have missed: Burly men with names like “Tuffy” Stone, “Big Moe” Cason, and “Stretch” Rumaner.
Stretch’s tattoos and huge smile are familiar from numerous Food Network shows about BBQ, beer, and pizza. He’s a sculptor who considers himself as much conceptual artist as pitmaster. This weekend he’s debuted the Porkerator, a smoked hog’s head with beer pouring from the taps where its eyes should be.
This is the fraternity of the grill. They all promise to attend his party and swap secrets over a tequila.
BBQ chefs never stop learning...
With so many factors at play, from the life of the animal to the humidity in the air when you cook, a barbecue pitmaster is always adjusting for game-day conditions. And even if you standardize your results, someone else has a method that gets a different (and sometimes better) result.
“None of these people are scientists,” says Michael, including his team. That’s why the Mixons test new theories at their compound in Undilla (where Myron is also the town mayor), but it’s a more playful experimentation than a chemistry lab. And that, in turn, is why even established pitmasters come down to the family’s monthly cook school to learn unfamiliar techniques.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’ll give you my process,” he says. “Might hold back a couple of things but... everybody wants to learn. We’re all out here to get better.”
For example, he says, cook your brisket with the fat cap on the bottom to protect the meat from the flame. If you roast it with the fat up top so it melts down, it’s only going to make the meat oily rather than juicy. Experimentation in the face of conventional wisdom is what drives this cuisine. Even when you fail to make progress, you’re left with some grade-A delicious static.
...even as standardization emerges
Still, there are factors you can control. Annella Kelso at Boise-based Snake River Farms, a provider of wagyu and prime beef, says her company’s products have a lower melting point for fat than most breeds. The meat purveyor was the source for 46 of the 57 briskets that received perfect scores at competition last year. And each emerging trend bows towards the last round’s success.
“There’s so much knowledge out there now,” Mixon says of how the barbecue scene flourished in the age of the internet and reality shows. “It was never, ever intended to be on this level. When those TV shows hit” they made the industry bigger, stronger, and better -- even if, he admits, “we were winning way more easily” in the ’00s. Of course back then the Mixons were competing in 40 to 50 BBQ festivals a year, so there were more victories to be had.
The spread of knowledge has also accelerated the cuisine’s development. What wins a competition one month might no longer be in vogue at the next big competition that year.
“Flavor profiles? Let me tell you something,” says Mixon, “you have to be cooking every weekend or you’re gonna get rusty. It changes week in, week out. It’s hard for me to predict the next form of evolution.”
One thing you can count on, though: It will be delicious.
When the lights go down, the party turns up
Friday night and it’s party time. The music swings from “Redneck Yacht Club” to “Sweet Caroline” to a panoply of Michael Jackson hits. Later there will be fireworks, but for now, the sunset provides all the light show anyone could want.
The crowd builds under the lights of the bar -- young blondes dominate the abundant cornhole and washer toss games. (If you’re a single man in Kansas, you’d better bring your beanbag skills if you want her number.) People stuff themselves with Mixon’s mango salsa brisket tacos. Stretch Rumaner makes the scene in a cape.
The line grows even as the bartenders rapidly fill and refill the suite of drinks curated from Mixon’s travels: the Grand Caborita, the Spicy Mango Caborita, a Cabo Beer-Rita, and -- fittingly for this party celebrating brisket -- the Cabo Cowboy.
And then there’s the smoker. A thing of beauty, it’s hand-detailed in red with a stiff brush, hot all over, and ready for its close-up. A sliding strobe camera allows people to pose with its glory -- many of them joined by Myron and Michael. The latter is in his moment, and gives the party its vitality. The past couple days he’s been jumping with joy at the sight of each face familiar and new -- and now they’re all here in one place.
Big Moe Cason appears, shaking the hand of everyone who passes by. He finds Mixon, and the two throw an arm around each other amid nonstop laughs. Someone asks them if they’re scoping out the competition, but Cason shakes his head. “This is my brother,” he says.
Everyone raises their glass to that.