5 women to know in barbecue

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen

Barbecue has often been dominated by the boys. But as far back as the 19th century, women have been tending pits and gaining fame for their 'cue. Today barbecue is bigger than ever, driven by the competition circuit and television shows. The field has become more diverse, and more women are getting noticed for their talent at smoking.

Melissa Cookston

Melissa Cookston inside her booth at the WCBCC at Tom Lee Park in Memphis, Tenn. on Friday, May 14, 2021.

Cookston is known as the "winningest woman in barbecue." At barbecue competitions across the country, Cookston and her team have taken top prizes for ribs, sauce, whole hog and overall grand champion. She also runs Memphis Barbecue Co. restaurants in Mississippi and Georgia. In 2017, she became the first woman inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.

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Mary John

On July Fourth in 1840 Mary John oversaw an immense barbecue in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that one of the town's leaders said "would never be forgotten." At the time, Mary John was an enslaved Black woman, who a few months later paid $800 to end her servitude. Barbecue historian Adrian Miller, in his book "Black Smoke," wonders if Mary John used her skill as a pitmaster to raise the money to buy her freedom. Mary John stayed in Arkansas, where she ran a successful boarding house known for its food. She died in 1857.

Desiree Robinson

Cozy Corner owner Desiree Robinson shares a laugh during a tour of Memphis barbecue on Friday, May 10, 2019.

For years, Robinson let her husband handle the barbecue at Memphis' Cozy Corner while she worked a corporate job. When he died in 2001, she took over the restaurant, where ribs and Cornish hens are standouts. Today, Robinson lets the younger generations handle the restaurant, but she is still there most days greeting customers and wearing her "I Love Jesus" cap. In 2020, she become the first Black woman to join the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Cookston presented her with the award, a bronze rack of ribs.

Tootsie Tomanetz

Tootsie Tomanetz was featured in episode one of the Netflix series "Chef's Table BBQ."

Tomanetz, now in her 80s, can't quit the pits. With her husband, she ran City Meat Market for years in Giddings, Texas. The barbecue was her business. They sold City Meat Market when her husband got sick, and she took a job as janitor at a local high school. But when Snow's BBQ opened in 2003, she was convinced to oversee the pits at the Saturday-only restaurant that is now a mecca in Texas for devout barbecue eaters. Tomanetz was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2018 and featured in the Netflix series "Chef's Table BBQ."

Helen Turner

Helen Turner, owner of Helen's BBQ in Brownsville, Tenn., adds burning coals and wood to the bottom of a smoker inside the back of her restaurant. The meat usually smokes for over eight hours in preparation for the next day.

When Turner gave her name to her little barbecue restaurant in Brownsville, Tennessee, it was not a boast. At Helen's Bar-B-Q, she does it all. She lays the pork and ribs on the pit. She carries the coals with a shovel across the smoke-choked pit room. And she chops to order the meat for her loyal customers, who often travel miles to eat her celebrated barbecue.

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