The Queen of “Q” shares her championship recipes.
We chatted with two-time World Barbecue Champion Melissa Cookston about breaking gender barriers, competition superstitions, and her first cookbook, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.
How did you get started in competition barbecue?
My husband’s college fraternity entered a barbecue contest, and as president, he did all of the cooking. They came in dead last. That wouldn’t do, so he decided to figure out competition barbecue. When we started dating, he took me to a competition, and I was like “Oh, we got this.” We came in fifth place, which is better than last.
What’s your husband’s role on your team?
Pete is my other half. I get a lot of accolades and am pushed out front, but I’ve always done what I’ve done with Pete. He’s my biggest cheerleader. Not only is he my husband, but he’s also my best friend and business partner.
Are more women getting involved in competition barbecue?
I was the only woman for a long time. There are definitely more women in the sport now than when I started. It’s great when young girls come up and say they want to be in competition barbecue like me.
You’ve said, “Barbecue is the great equalizer.” How so?
There are no ladies teams in barbecue. Everyone starts from the same point; everyone ends up with a judge in front of them. I don’t like having that caveat at the end of my name, “all-time female champion.” When you’re a world champion, you’re a world champion. I want to be the best in barbecue, regardless of gender.
How long until you’re the winningest pitmaster in barbecue history, regardless of gender?
If I won one more world championship, I’d share the record with the three other men who hold that title. Keep in mind that I’ve only competed in the Memphis in May World Championship for 6 years. Some of these guys have competed for 25 years. So, if you’re looking at my batting average, I’m already there.
Your restaurant, Memphis Barbecue Co., focuses on barbecue and food from the Mississippi Delta. How does it differ from other barbecue regions?
Delta barbecue is Memphis style. Memphis barbecue is sultry and probably the most middle-of-the-road barbecue profile of all regions. We use smoke as an ingredient, and we don’t ever want it to overpower the meat. We want you to get just a kiss of smoke. The sauce is sweet but smoky and mellow and accentuates the flavors of the meat instead of masking them.
How does cooking for judges differ from cooking for restaurant patrons?
I treat everyone who comes to one of my restaurants as a judge, because that’s what they are. They judge our food, determine whether or not they will come back, and decide if they will tell others about us. I cook as close to competition barbecue as I can in a restaurant setting, and I want every plate that goes out to be absolutely perfect. I preach to my staff all the time that if you never strive to be perfect, you’ll never be great.
What recipes best represent Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room?
I may be known for my whole hog ‘cueing, but I’ve won more titles with my ribs. So that recipe is definitely in the book. But you’ll find more than just barbecue. It’s full of the food I grew up with, like grits, fried green tomatoes, and black-eyed pea relish.
￼Do you leave that competitive spirit at the competition, or does it fuel your other endeavors?
Competition barbecue is for those of us that are too old to play basketball 1⁄2 and don’t like golf. It’s a 24/7 job, and you have to be driven to do well. No matter what I do, whether I’m opening 1 a restaurant or filming a TV show, I want ￼￼it to be the best.
You mention barbecue folks are a superstitious lot. What are some of your superstitions?
Usually competitions are out in a field, so for a long time, if there was anything on the site where we cooked, we would pick it up and put it in a box. And if we won the contest, we would take whatever was in the box on the road with us. One time we were at a competition in Georgia, and there was a 16-inch saw blade in our spot. We won the contest, so you better believe we toted that saw blade with us for the rest of the year.
If home cooks were to purchase two pieces of barbecue equipment, what would you suggest?
A smoker and a thermometer. But it’s also good to know how to feel meat and know if it’s done without a thermometer. You can take two butts, put them in the smoker at the same time, and one will cook completely differently. So you have to develop that feel for knowing when your meat is perfect.
Photo reprinted with permission from Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room by Melissa Cookston.