Melissa Cookston
Photo: jay adkins/Jay Adkins
Photo: jay adkins/Jay Adkins

Talking to the winningest woman in barbecue, in Atlanta this weekend

Decorated female barbecue champ Melissa Cookston expanded into restaurants, cookbooks, hog breeding

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And in the ring of competitive barbecue, no other woman is heating things up more than Melissa Cookston.

Dubbed the “winningest woman in barbecue,” Cookston is at the top of her game. This year, she was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. She earned bragging rights once again as the World Whole Hog Champion at Memphis in May, her fifth such victory, adding to her accolade as the only person to have done so three years in a row (2010-2012).

Cookston will visit Atlanta this weekend to participate in the Decatur BBQ, Blues and Bluegrass Festival. On Aug. 12, fairgoers will have the opportunity to taste her signature chipotle barbecue meatballs, but Cookston hopes that those with a curiosity for ‘cue will chat her up.

“Barbecue is my life,” Cookston says.

She certainly has amassed barbecue know-how over the years. The culture of smoking meat was part of her upbringing in Mississippi.

“When I was a child, the older folks in my family had a smokehouse. They slaughtered their own hogs on the coldest day of the year. Then they built a fire in the smokehouse. Every piece of that hog, they used in cooking.”

Other early influences included chowing down on Memphis-style barbecue with her mother.

“We lived one and a half hours away from Memphis. My mom would put us in the car and drive us to Memphis to get ribs.”

Consuming smoked meats is one thing. Cooking them in a competition is another thing entirely. Cookston recalls that it was her husband — her boyfriend at the time — who lit the flame that began her love affair with competitive barbecue.

“When dating, he made the mistake of taking me to a barbecue competition, and I fell in love with it. I’ve always been involved in sports — I have a competitive nature. When you mix competition and something as great as barbecue, what’s not to love about that?”

Some two decades after first stepping into the barbecue battle zone, Cookston is now a seven-time barbecue world champion. And she is entrenched in the meat world in other ways. She is a restaurateur with two concepts — Memphis BBQ Co., with locations in Horn Lake, Miss., Fayetteville, N.C., and here in Dunwoody, as well as Steak by Melissa, a steakhouse in Southaven, Miss.

In addition, she has authored two cookbooks, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” and “Smokin’ Hot in the South.” Both books touch on subjects that reflect changes to what some might consider a sacrosanct universe.

Published in 2016, “Smokin’ Hot in the South” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $22.99) demonstrates ways that Southern culinary traditions are expanding to embrace flavors and seasonings from afar. When it comes to barbecue, says Cookston, “it’s easy to find an Asian influence that you couldn’t find at any other time. I feel a lot more fusion now than ever before. They are not sticking to those regionalisms you used to find. You see people experimenting more, which is exciting for me. We’re not stuck in a world of, ‘This is the only way it can be made because this is that way that Grandpa Joe made it.’”

In her 2014 “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $22.99), Cookston shares the story of how she got into barbecue and worked her way up to become a respected pitmaster in a field dominated by men.

“When I started, there weren’t any women competing,” she says.

But times have changed since Cookston entered the arena in the late 1990s. She is seeing more women on the circuit and manning backyard grills (something she attributes, in part, to grills and other equipment that make outdoor cooking “not as intimidating as it used to be”). She also notes, though, that even today, not many women participate in whole hog competitions, her forte.

2014 proved to be a game changer for Cookston. That year, she felt she had cooked the best hog of her life. It was a 200-pound beast she had ordered. How could she go beyond perfect?

“My thought process was: The only way that I can cook a better hog — to have more marbling in the meat, more intramuscular meat, more layers of fat — is to create a hog.”

Cookston consumed herself with research, teamed up with a farmer and has since bred her own hybrid hogs for competition. (She will not disclose the breeds.) The result? “I cleaned up,” she says of her performance at this year’s Memphis in May.

She continues to look for ways to challenge herself. Over Labor Day weekend, she’ll participate for the first time in the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, the largest barbecue competition in the world and what Cookston calls “their holy grail.”

“Kansas City is not my comfort zone,” she says.

If Cookston’s record is any indication, she can handle the heat.

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