World Champion Pit Master Melissa Cookston
Family, food, and smokin’ in the boys’ room.
Justin Fox Burks
On a pretty afternoon in early April, I drove to Memphis Barbecue Company in Horn Lake, Mississippi, to meet Melissa Cookston, a two-time world Memphis in May grand champion and the face behind the wildly popular restaurants she operates with her husband, Pete Cookston. The purpose of the interview was to talk about Cookston’s new cookbook, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue. But when she greeted me with a friendly handshake, I spontaneously blurted out, “I can’t believe you are so petite.” Cookston laughed, something she does easily and often. “I guess you’d expect someone who throws around whole hogs for a living to be a little bigger,” she said.
Certainly, Cookston defies common assumptions about female grill masters, but her energy and accomplishments extend far beyond the barbecue pit. Since opening the first Memphis Barbecue Company with her husband in 2010, the couple have opened a second restaurant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and a third location in Atlanta will start serving Memphis-style barbecue in June.
While she still competes in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Cookston has pulled back from the barbecue circuit to focus on the restaurants and her burgeoning media career that includes television and the publication of her first cookbook in early April. Spirited and accessible like the author herself, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room is a charming culinary romp through the Mississippi Delta and the barbecue, sides, and desserts that Cookston loves to eat. The book also demystifies smoking and curing meats and shares award-winning recipes for seasonings and sauces.
“The way I grew up, you had a spread on the table pretty much every meal,” Cookston said during our interview, some of which appears below. “But 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.”
Memphis magazine: In the introduction to Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room, you write about how your mother would drive the family to Memphis for ribs. Can you elaborate on the 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. The ribs were fantastic and sometimes we got to stay in a hotel overnight.
Is that where your early love for barbecue came from?
Not entirely. My grandfather’s coffee shop in Pontotoc was 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 do you like to experiment with other types of cooking outside of barbecue and Southern food?
My husband and I are big into sous-vide [vacuum cooking], and we have an entire molecular gastronomy section in our house. We love cooking. So if we can come up with something new, that’s a win 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.
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 more about the pinto bean pie. I have never heard of anything like it before.
It comes from how I grew up. 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 little savory.
Is there anything else you want to share about your book or barbecue?
I want people not to feel intimidated 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. People talk about apple pie and hot dogs, but barbecue truly is unique to this country. To me, there is nothing more American than barbecue. It is one of the few things we can say, “This is us; this is ours.”
And finally, why do you think people all over the country are so crazy about 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. When you come to the Memphis region, it’s a sultry flavor and so well-balanced. It’s not overpowering. Instead, it’s the perfect combination of flavors.
To read the complete interview with Melissa Cookston and to find additional recipes from Cookston’s new book, including one for baby back ribs, go to Memphis Stew, the food blog for Memphis magazine.