In the Southern barbecue world, female pitmasters are rising to the top
Not many restaurants are like Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee, about an hour outside Memphis. In the dark pit room, smoky enough to make you cry, wood burns on one side. When the oak and hickory turns to coals, Helen Turner carries the embers with a shovel across the room, tossing them under a cinder-block pit filled with pork shoulder. Turner adds no seasoning, not even salt or pepper, but pork prepared here, riddled with crunchy bark, ranks among some of the best in the South.
Turner has owned her barbecue joint for 25 years. Her husband lights the fire in the mornings and helps a bit more since retiring last year. But Turner still pretty much does it all by herself: tend the meat, fix the sandwiches, prepare the made-from-scratch sides and work the register while chatting with regulars.
In the barbecue business, where often smoked meat is spun as macho and men far outnumber women, not many pitmasters are like Turner.
“I had people come in, men pretty much, and say can’t no woman do this job. But I done proved everybody wrong,” she said. “It makes me feel proud to be a woman pitmaster.
Everybody says, you’re the queen.”
Barbecue continues to boom but now more women are taking charge of the pits and holding the secret recipes for sauces and rubs.
Adrian Miller, author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” said that from the earliest days, even when women were normally in charge of meals, barbecue was overseen by men. “The way that barbecue developed, the digging of the trench, chopping down wood, burning that, and then cooking these whole animal carcasses, I could just see why that became associated as men’s work,” Miller said.
But in his book, which traces the central role of Black cooks in developing and nurturing American barbecue, Miller intentionally reflects on the often-fraught role enslaved African Americans played in the history of barbecue. And he makes a point to include the story of Marie Jean.
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When Jean was enslaved she was in charge of a major public barbecue in Arkansas. She bought her freedom in 1840 and opened a hotel renowned for its cuisine in the village of Arkansas Post. Women like Jean, who were in charge of the pits and created the business, remained rare through the 19th and 20th centuries. Part of that “is the common biography” that as a woman you are working with a spouse or partner, Miller said.
Desiree Robinson got into the barbecue business through her husband, Raymond. Cozy Corner, the Memphis barbecue institution where the music is always loud but just the right volume, was his concern. She worked at the phone company while he cooked.
“I knew how hard it was,” Robinson said during a recent lunch rush, where people tore through plates of ribs, pork sandwiches and Cozy Corner’s specialty, barbecued Cornish hen.
When Raymond died in 2001, however, she stepped up and took over the restaurant.
These days, Robinson, now 84, lets her kids and grandkids do the work. But when Robinson visits the restaurant, dressed sharp and wearing her “I Love Jesus” ball cap, she is the center of attention.
The wider barbecue world also recognized Robinson’s work, inducting her last year into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.
She was the first African American woman to receive the honor.
“That blew my mind. Plain and simple,” Robinson said. “We’re just a family business.”
Melding cultures in Atlanta
Jiyeon Lee started cooking at fine dining restaurants, a career she came to after immigrating to Atlanta in 1999 from South Korea, where she was a teenage pop star. Now, with her husband and fellow chef Cody Taylor, she owns Atlanta’s celebrated Heirloom Market BBQ.
Lee notes that while barbecue gets branded as masculine pursuit, too many kitchens of all types are still inhospitable to women.
“The kitchen is designed by men. The height is designed for men,” she said. “It’s not just barbecue.”
Lee learned about barbecue and Southern food from Taylor, and he learned about Korean cooking from her. Southern greens reminded her of the bitter flavors she grew up eating. When Taylor tasted Korean gochujang, he thought the combination of heat, sweet and savory was not so different from barbecue sauce. Together they have melded their two cultures at Heirloom, becoming part of the wave of chefs expanding the definition of Southern food.
'Smokin in the Boys Room'
Even though Melissa Cookston titled her first barbecue cookbook “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” she never felt unwelcome as a woman in the barbecue world.
“I think the media makes a lot more out of that than I ever did,” said Cookston, known on the competition circuit as the “winningest woman in barbecue.”
In 2017, she became the first woman inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.
“I thought I was being punked,” she said. “I don’t think I deserved it. I kind of felt it was because I was a woman, and I don’t want anything because of that. I thought there were people that needed to be inducted before me. But I was honored, because my peers voted me in.”
When Cookston started appearing on television, most recently as a judge for Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown,” for the first time she felt it was harder for her as a woman. The social media comments could be vicious.
“People are cruel. I try not to look at any of it. I tried to just let it all go,” she said.
Sibling competitors in Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Brooke Lewis was only 19 when she teamed up with her older brother, Brad Orrison, to open The Shed. What began as a literal shed in 2001 is now a 15,000 square-foot complex in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The siblings are also fierce but friendly competitors on the barbecue circuit.
Women in the barbecue world, Lewis said, all note how male dominated it remains.
“It’s been a conversation that I feel like myself and every other lady of barbecue has had,” Lewis said.
Lewis believes, though, that the barbecue world is changing. It has no choice. Not only are more women involved, but they're succeeding in a way that no one can ignore.
“Women are competing, they’re winning, they’re hovering over the pits, they’re cooking, they’re running the business,” she said.
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