Melissa Cookston is the world’s best competition barbecue cook. She won the title at the 2012 Kingsford Invitational head to head against the winners from the eight most prestigious competitions. Her team, Yazoo’s Delta Q, based in Nesbitt, MS, just a few miles south of Memphis, got there by winning the huge Memphis In May competition, where she has won the whole hog category an unbelievable three years in a row. She teamed with her husband, Pete, and their business partner, John Wheeler, all owners of the Memphis Barbecue Company restaurants and won four of the five categories judged. That’s Wheeler and Cookston trying to cook on camera in the photo. There is no question of who is in charge on this team. So much for male dominance in this “sport”.
The BBQ champ’s backstory
Cookston was born in Ruleville, MS, “A greasy spot in the road” in the Mississippi Delta, home of countless blues musicians and barbecue cooks. She and her Mom would make the 115 mile drive to Memphis occasionally, and she fell in love with the ribs at a joint named Gridley’s.
Years later she took a job as a bartender/manager at a restaurant in Memphis where she met, and hated, her boss. It took her a year after she left the place to soften up and date him. He took her to a barbecue competition. She had always loved barbecue, but had no idea how fascinating a competition could be.
She went home and fired up Betsy, her barrel grill, and married her ex-nemesis. In 1997, when she entered her first cookoff “There were no fancy expensive smokers like the teams use nowadays” she says. Everybody used barrels. She won her first championship in 2001 and eventually upgraded to fancy expensive smokers made by Backwoods (they make some very nice backyard units for much less – I have their Party model). Cookston remembers the day she sold Betsy. As she was being driven away a hubcap popped off and rolled down the driveway, smashing into a tree. She now regrets letting Betsy go and thinks the hubcap meant Betsy was unhappy too.
At one time she was competing in 20 or 30 events a year, but she has scaled back to about four since she opened the restaurant in December 2011. She sold her home in order to raise money for the restaurant, but it has been a huge success although she confesses to having nightmares about opening the doors and nobody would show up. She says, “I’m like Sally Field. When the place fills up I feel like shouting ‘They really like me!'” She is shopping for a new home now.
Pete joins her for many of her contests. “He is shy and pushed me to the forefront and respected my ideas even though he was more skilled than I was in the beginning. We don’t even have to communicate verbally when we cook.” They now have a 14 year old daughter who is the five time Mississippi hamburger champion, winning her first at age 6.
I asked her what to order when I visit her restaurant, and without hesitation she said “baby back ribs, potato salad, red beans & rice, turnip greens, mac & cheese, and cornbread. We do them all right. The ribs are the best. We soak the dried beans ourselves, none of the canned stuff. The recipes are family recipes that I’ve fine tuned.”
The biggest surprise for her in the Kingsford Invitational? “There were so many other great teams, all of whom cook chicken and brisket regularly on the KCBS circuit, I was just hoping for a good showing.” I guess winning first place in pork, ribs, brisket, and the one bite challenge (the shrimp below) which is four of the five categories, classifies as a good showing. “I still can’t believe I won brisket! That was just crazy”.
By the way, Cookston teaches barbecue classes occasionally.
- 20 Gulf shrimp, 16/20 size
- 20 slices bacon
- 8 ounces cream cheese (1 brick)
- 1 jar whole pickled jalapeños (12 ounce jar)
- ½ cup Thai sweet chili sauce
- Prep. Peel and devein the shrimp, but leave the tails on. Click here for instructions and photos.
- Fire up. Setup your grill for 2-zone cooking and heat the direct side medium hot. Cook the bacon strips right on the grates on the indirect side, lid on, until they are about halfway done. Don't overcook them, they must remain flexible.
- Stuff and wrap. Place a strip of cream cheese on the shrimp's back where the vein was. Place a strip of jalapeño on top of the cream cheese (you decide how much and slice the jalapenos as necessary), then wrap the whole thing with a strip of bacon. Hold it in place with a toothpick or two.
- Cook. Cook the bacon wrapped shrimp on the indirect side of the grill with the lid on until the shrimp is pink throughout and the bacon is done the way you like it. If you like the bacon really hard, you might need to move it to the direct side for a few minutes, lid off.
- Glaze and serve. Remove the shrimp from the grill, brush generously with the Thai sweet chili sauce and serve.