The Grill and the Glory
MEAT KEEPS MYRON MIXON VERY BUSY.
Almost every week, usually on a Wednesday, Mixon stows several hundred pounds of raw ribs, pork, beef brisket and chicken in a couple of coffin-size coolers attached to a 30-foot, $40,000 custom trailer. The rig also houses an electric chest freezer and three enormous smoking "pits," huge sheet-metal contraptions of chimneys and gauges and doors. The largest can hold three 200-pound butchered hogs, one of Mixon's specialties. He throws aboard gnarled peach tree branches gathered from the orchards near his home in Vienna, Ga., along with several bags of ice, a wide array of condiments, sauces and spices (some obvious, some secret), brown sugar, chicken broth, vinegar, fresh parsley, beer, beer cozies, blenders, bourbon, rum, tequila, a worn boombox holding an exhausted Guns N' Roses cassette, a half-dozen folding armchairs, a portable fire basket and various party tents and canopies. And then, early the next day, Mixon and his longtime aide-de-camp, David "Doby" Hair, pull away for some distant fairground or state park or convention center parking lot, wherever the national barbecue circuit is convening that weekend. The calendar is concentrated in the South, barbecue's ancestral homeland. But Mixon logs more than 50,000 miles a year driving as far as Vancouver and Vermont.
"My whole life revolves around barbecue," says Mixon, who also cooks as a caterer and for his family's two barbecue restaurants. "We stay gone most weekends. Sometimes I get mixed up about where I'm at."
This particular weekend is a cool, wet autumn one, and the town of the week is Lynchburg, Tenn. The burg is tiny, but the event is one of pro barbecuing's most celebrated, the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue. To serious cookers, it's known simply as "the Jack." No one competes at the Jack unless he has won a state championship or other major competition in the previous year. And while the top award of $2,500 is far from one of barbecuing's biggest purses, the whiskey-barrel-shaped trophy is definitely one of its most coveted.
"The Jack is the most prestigious, and it's the one big event I have never won," says Mixon, who has competed here eight times. In 2004, he missed first place by a 10th of a point. "Here, you're not competing with anybody but champions. I am very serious about it this year."
And when Mixon gets serious, the other competitors take note. There is no cooker on the circuit hotter than Mixon, who has won more than 1,200 barbecue titles, more than 130 grand championships, 24 state championships and six barbecue-team-of-the-year banners. One of the few full-time professional barbecue competitors, he has made, by his own account, between $75,000 and $100,000 in prize money each of the past five years on the circuit. I heard one rival introduce Mixon to his sponsor as the Babe Ruth of barbecue.
"There is nobody on the planet who has won more barbecue contests than Myron," says James Britt, a Birmingham, Ala., engineer and competitive cooker. "He's a very bad dude. He's won everything."
Not everything. Not the Jack.
It's Thursday night, and Mixon is set up in the small park behind Lynchburg's tiny town square. As more teams pull in, the air is filled with the loose diesel rattle of F-350s and Ram Chargers and the beeeep-beeeep-beeep of stretch RVs being backed into place. Some of the barbecue rigs are heavy on bling, like the custom pimp-my-grill smoker with the hot-rod paint job that preens in front of a 50-foot bus with Texas plates. But most are homey, with tiki lights shining on the trophies and banners of previous barbecue triumphs. Two little blond girls wrestle like puppies before the tent of the team emblazoned with a huge Cancer Sucks banner (the team was formed by Chicagoan Scottie Johnson as a fundraising project after his wife, Corliss, died of cancer in 2003).
Mixon's rig sits among the rest like a death star, black and unadorned. The master himself stands in a green camo windbreaker, accepting visits and tributes from his many admirers in barbecuedom. He's tall and commanding, with brushed-back preacher-man hair, a tight beard and a belly built on barbecue and long drives.
Known for his curt intensity when the coals are hot, Mixon is every bit the beguiling good old boy in these pre-game hours. I only have to pause in front of his trailer for him to invite me over for a generous splash of Jack Daniel's in a red plastic cup. The mood is festive. Mixon's wife, Faye, is with him. And supporters from Georgia and Alabama have driven to root him through the Jack. Mixon and Hair, as they ready some pork chops to throw on the grill, break regularly into ragged Axl Rose lyrics: Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.
But when talk turns to the approaching contest, Mixon's eyes go as hard and dark as the black steel smoker behind him. Normally, he's a confessed barbecue mercenary, driven less by passion than by payoff. He endures the endless miles, the dive motels and the sleepless nights amid the smoke not from a love of cooking, but to make as much money as he can. He doesn't even keep the trophies anymore.