Melissa Cookston talks about food and family in the Mississippi Delta

Melissa Cookston won eight contests in a row with her baby back ribs, and she shares her recipe in her new cookbook published in April.

Justin Fox Burks

Before two-time Memphis in May grand champion Melissa Cookston tackles this year’s barbecue cooking contest, she took some time to talk to Memphis magazine about the circuitous path that lead to her newest restaurant, opening in Atlanta in June. Spoiler alert: The road to the third Memphis Barbecue Company had a lot to do with food.

During the interview at her first restaurant in Horn Lake, Mississippi, the engaging and spirited restaurateur also shared stories from her new cookbook titled “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.” Some of the interview was published in the May issue of Memphis magazine, but the full version appears here. Cookston also shared barbecue recipes from her book, which will be published on Memphis Stew next week.

Memphis magazine: In the introduction to your book, you write about how your mother would drive the family to Memphis for ribs. Can you elaborate on that story?

Melissa Cookston: At that point we lived in northeast Mississippi, and as a teenager I had other things I wanted to do besides drive to Memphis to eat barbecue. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that some of the best times we had were in that car going to Gridley’s to eat ribs. Sometimes we got to stay in a hotel overnight, and the ribs were fantastic.

Is that where your early love for barbecue came from?

Not entirely. My grandfather‘s coffee shop in Pontotoc was actually in a barbecue place. He would take me to the coffee shop in the mornings, and I would smell the barbecue cooking in the pits. And if I was lucky, we would stay long enough to get a sandwich.

So run me through the chronology of smelling barbecue with your granddad to your interest competitive barbecue cooking.

I’ve always been a lover of barbecue, but I didn’t understand the love for it until I started dating my husband, and he took me to a barbecue contest. After that day, I knew I wanted to know everything there is to know about the cooking process of barbecue. I’m a little OCD, so I overdo everything I do. Barbecue quickly became a passion and drove me to get up in the mornings.

How did you get from competitive barbecue to opening the Memphis Barbecue Company?

A good opportunity came, so it seemed like a natural progression. Between the two of us, my husband and I have over 50 years in the restaurant business. But we were still scared to death. We sold everything we could, including my competition rig and the truck to pull it.

It seems like you hit a home run from the start.

Yes, we were very lucky, and the timing was right. We quadrupled our sales projections in the first few months.

Let’s get back to the cookbook. What was your approach in writing it? Where did you start?

I have a lot of stories to tell, so I started there so people can get to know me. The recipes were the easy part, because they are things I’ve enjoyed eating my whole life.

So are the recipes in the book mostly family recipes?

Some recipes are from my grandmother, but I don’t come from a long line of cooks. We lived off the land and cooked what we had. I had never been exposed to a lot of different foods as a young adult, but I was very interesting in learning. When I started barbecuing, I wanted to smoke anything I could find. If it walked, talked, or crawled, I wanted to smoke it and see what it tasted like.

I love that so many of the recipes in your book go beyond traditional barbecue, such as how to make blueberry chutney and maple bacon jam.

The way I grew up you had a spread on the table pretty much every meal. And you have to find things to do with the leftovers. But beyond that, my husband and I also are food people. We like to experiment and try new things, so I think it’s our love of food that really shows through in the book.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

Pinto bean pie would have to be at the top, because it is so unique and raises so many eyebrows. I also love the blackberry chutney, the Mississippi caviar, the watermelon salsa; all those things are very near and dear to me because they add such a depth of flavor to the meal.

Tell me about the pinto bean pie. I have never heard of anything like it.

It comes from how I grew up, and it’s very unique. We were not privileged, and we had to make do with the things we had. But now that I understand food better, I understand what the beans do for the pie. It’s a sweet dessert and the beans give it some texture and make it a savory.

Another thing I love in the book is how you take the mystery out of curing meats and making bacon. I didn’t know the process was so simple.

Now that barbecue has exploded on the scene with “Hey, I’m a food group, too,” people are getting back into slaughtering their own hogs and curing their own meats. You can put any skin on bacon that you want to and it’s so much better tasting and cheaper than what you buy in the grocery story. We make our bacon in the restaurant. It’s about a 14-day process, so it’s very labor intensive, but it’s so much fun.

I also like the “Sides and Such” chapter of the book.

As far as sides go, I grew up eating fresh vegetables. So the sides in the book complement barbecue but also complement anything else on the table. One of my favorite things in the world is pepper sauce. My grandmother has been making it my whole life. When I was growing up, we always had a jar of pepper sauce on the table. It is easy to make and such a great complement to so many vegetables. I knew I had to include it in the book.

Do you do the cooking at home?

We do so much cooking at the restaurant that by the time we get home, we’re a little frazzled, so we split it up. My husband didn’t come from a long line of cooks either, so we’ve had a lot of trial and error in the kitchen, and sometimes things go horribly wrong. There’s a saying in our house: We’re trying something new, but there’s always pizza.

Do you like to experiment with other types of cooking outside of barbecue and Southern food?

I have to admit we are big into sous vide and we have an entire molecular gastronomy section in our house. We love cooking. We love everything about food. So if we can come up with something new, that’s never been done before, that’s a hit for us, even if no one else ever tastes it. I just made a Myer lemon pie with bacon crust that is to die for.

Why do you think people all over the country love Memphis style barbecue?

I think Memphis style barbecue kind of hits the middle of the road. You go to Texas, it’s salt and pepper, it’s a drier barbecue. They’re not big on sauces. You go to Kansas City, and it’s kind of sticky sweet, and then you swing over to the east of us and you hit the Carolinas with the mustard sauce and the vinegar sauce. And some places in the Carolinas don’t even serve sauce; it’s more of a dip.

When you come to the Memphis region, it’s a sultry flavor and so well-balanced. It’s nothing overpowering, and there’s no one flavor like mustard or vinegar that stands out. It’s the perfect combination.

In the book you talk about your wood. Can you generalize what wood works best for certain kinds of food?

The mistake most people make is over smoking meats. Smoke is like an ingredient. It needs to be applied like other ingredients so you still taste the subtle pork flavors. The lighter your meat is, the more smoke it will take. So if you are cooking chicken or pork, you want to lean toward a lighter wood, like a fruit wood. Brisket will take a heavier wood, so you can add some hickory.

What is it that you would like people to know about Melissa Cookston and your cookbook?

I’m not an author; I’m a cook. I tried to include recipes that are a little different, and I hope that the recipes and some of the funny stories are interesting to people. I think the pictures are fantastic. When I look at the photographs, it’s hard to believe that’s my food.

Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

I want people not to feel intimated about barbecue. I’m a girl and I can do it. It’s easy and it’s fun, whether you are talking about it, cooking it, smelling it, or eating it. To me, there is nothing more American than barbecue. People talk about apple pie and hot dogs, but barbecue is unique to this country. Barbecue is one of the few things we can say, “This is us; this is ours.”

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