Women Who Play With Fire
They're not exactly in the kitchen, but it's not because these women pitmasters can't take the heat.
Women don't have a long history in barbeque, but the ones who compete and run restaurants know it's the end result that matters. Meet three women who have shown they know how to handle the fire and claim the flame.
Helen Turner became the proud owner of Helen's Bar BQ because she knew how to make a good sauce. Melissa Cookston, "the winningest woman in barbeque," got started by just looking for something to feed her competitive nature. And Desiree Robinson ended up in the barbeque business because she and her husband couldn't find good ribs in Denver and he had a knack for cooking them himself.
They're unusual; it's estimated that fewer than two percent of competitive pitmasters are women and even fewer make it a profession. Only one woman other than Cookston and Robinson is in the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame: Tootsie Tomanetz, the pitmaster at Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Texas. It's a man's game, but these women aren't exactly playing.
"Barbequers are like that. We want to compete, we want to win, and if you don't want to play golf, well, it's a great thing to do," she said.
For Helen Turner, a recipient of the Southern Foodways Alliance Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame award in 2012, it all started as a job. In the 1980s, she started working part-time at Curly Lynn's in her hometown of Brownsville, Tennessee. When the barbeque restaurant sold in 1996, the new owner asked her to come back to make the barbeque sauce.
"A few months down the line he said, 'Helen, I'm too old for this job. Can you take it over? All you have to do is pay the taxes and it's yours.' So that's how I got Helen's."
Twenty-five years later, Turner's barbeque is known over the region as some of the smokiest around. She starts the day over a pit behind the 100-year-old building, smoking shoulders, bologna, ribs, sausages and by request, chicken, over hickory and oak, served with sides like baked beans and potato salad.
It's hard work. At 65, Turner has tried to get her children and grandchildren interested, but she's not sure any of them will want the business when she retires.
"I'm going to do it as long as my health allows it, but I'm not sure who'll do it after that. They all tell me, 'There's just so much smoke,' and you better believe it, they're right. It gets smoky."
Cookston, who has won the whole hog division at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest five times and has twice been named grand champion, started cooking in small contests in the early 1990s.
"When you grow up in this region, barbeque is an integral part of life. Everyone either cooks the best barbeque, knows someone who does or has the perfect place to get it," she said.
She started competing in small contests in Mississippi, where she and her husband live, just south of the Tennessee state line.
In 2008, she entered the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and she went all in: Whole hog division.
"If I was going to Memphis in May, I was doing whole hog," she said.
She came in third her first year and two years later, won her division and was named grand champion. People took notice. Not only was she a woman in competition, but she was a woman cooking a whole hog.
She's written two cookbooks — "Smokin' In the Boys' Room" and "Smokin' Hot In the South" — and has appeared on numerous television shows. And fun fact: She was a paralegal for John Grisham and typed his first two books, "A Time to Kill" and "The Firm," which he wrote in longhand.
In 2017, Cookston, now 52, was the first woman inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame.
Desiree Robinson is the matriarch of the family that owns Cozy Corner in Memphis, and is the first Black woman to be inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame in a ceremony presided over by Cookston.
Robinson and her late husband, Raymond Robinson, opened the restaurant in 1977, after they owned Ray's Barbecue for a few years in Denver in the 1960s. They took over the restaurant already on the site and kept the name.
"We didn't have to change the sign," Robinson, 84, said.
"He was a natural," Robinson said of her late husband. "It was like he was born cooking. I've not tasted anybody's food as good as his. It just did something good for him to set a meal on a table."
In 2001, Raymond died, and Desiree joined her children, Raymond Jr. and Val Bradley, who were already working in the restaurant with their father. The restaurant is respected locally and nationally and best known for its signature barbequed Cornish hen.
In 2015, a pit fire damaged the restaurant and it closed for two years. Robinson's grandson, Bobby Bradley, kept most of the food coming from a portable smoker he set up at a friend's restaurant across the street. Today, business is brisk even with the pandemic.
Robinson credits her late husband. "Raymond did such a beautiful job," she said. "I mean, look at us, generations in here. He set us up."