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Omnivore - Barbecue tips from world champ Melissa Cookston

The morning I went to interview Melissa Cookston, her day had begun discovering a potential catastrophe. Despite the fact that it was still several months away, Cookston was sweating her daughter’s high school graduation. She wasn’t worried about whether her daughter would graduate. What had her nervous was the planned date of the ceremony, and whether it would fall on the same weekend as Memphis in May, the most prestigious barbecue contest on the planet. Not the kind of scheduling snafu that would panic most mothers, but most mothers aren’t nicknamed "the Winningest Woman in Barbecue." The thought of having to choose between the biggest competition on the circuit and her little girl’s commencement was weighing heavily, even though she already knew what her decision would be. “How bad a mom would I be?" she said. "I mean, c’mon. You know which one I’d have to miss...”
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? Cookston is a three-time world champion in the realm of competitive barbecue. Also known as “the Whole Hog Queen,” she’s the only woman ever to be crowned Grand Champion at Memphis in May. And she’s done it twice. Cookston has parlayed that success into multiple TV appearances, a cookbook called Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room, and Memphis Barbecue Co. (4764 Ashford Dunwoody Road, 770-394-7427. memphisbbqco.com), her own chain of three restaurants, the newest of which opened in Dunwoody last year. “We flew under the radar for that first year,” she recalls. “No PR. No grand opening, even. I wanted to fine-tune the food and the front-of-house first. They’re equally important to me. I’m from Mississippi; we do hospitality right. ‘Yes ma’am, yes sir.’ We’re nice, dammit.”
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? After attending her first competition as a spectator she, "looked around and said, ‘I like this. I could win one of these.'” She and her husband quit their restaurant jobs to travel the competition circuit full-time. “There were a lot of days where a tuna fish sandwich was breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she recalls. “But then we started winning.” Winning, indeed. She earned over $250,000 in prize money in 2010 — what she calls her “Cinderella" year but estimates she spent almost that much just to live on the circuit doing it.
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? You can taste Cookston’s Delta roots come through when you eat at her Dunwoody restaurant even though she says she had to tame her competition ‘cue just slightly for the masses. “In a Memphis-style barbecue contest, you send your best piece of meat, whatever it is, to the judges ... trying to blow them away with one bite. You have to amp up the flavor of that one single bite. It’s way more intense than you would ever serve in a restaurant or in your backyard.”
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? But that’s not to say Cookston's competition techniques can’t help you dramatically kick up your cookout game beyond burgers and hot dogs this tailgating season.
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? If investing in a 12-pound beef brisket feels a little intimidating, Cookston recommends starting with pork butt. “It’s an easy stepping stone into barbecue." Doing chicken? Cook halved birds like she serves in her restaurants instead of individual parts, she says. They retain moisture better and look impressive on the plate.
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? Regardless of what protein you pick, Cookston suggests starting simple. Beginners should focus on the rub, first. "Your rub is your flavor," she says. "It’s your base. It’s the central point to barbecue.” She spent two years developing hers completely from scratch (not realizing that in a contest, most competitors take a store-bought blend, add one or two ingredients to it, and call it “theirs”), and she uses it as an all-purpose seasoning for everything.
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? In addition to her rub, Cookston often adds a healthy squirt of yellow mustard and massages it all in. “The mustard is like a glue that holds the rub to the meat and gets it into the pores," she says. "It won’t taste mustardy at all, but it does give you a nice little extra tang from the vinegar.”
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? Whether you’re presenting your barbecue to persnickety judges or to hungry friends and family, some added attention after cooking will earn your ‘cue rave reviews, Cookston says. She likes to use a glaze, a sauce with a sweet component, usually honey, in the last five or ten minutes of cooking, or just before serving on a larger cut of meat that’s already resting. A last-second sprinkle of rub will help the flavors pop, too.
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? “Personally, I don’t care about sauce," Cookston says. "The flavor should be there even without sauce. I want it to taste good the way it comes out. Adding sauce ought to be a personal thing.”
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? As for the smokiness that sets true barbecuing apart from mere grilling, Cookston exercises restraint. “Lean toward fruitwoods: peach, apple, cherry. Don’t be afraid to blend woods to change up the flavor profile. Go easy with hickory. It’s strong. And just stay away from mesquite.” Smoke is an ingredient, she says. “It’s like salt. It should accentuate the meat, not overpower it. Don’t keep adding more and more thinking it’ll improve the taste.”
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? Ultimately, Melissa says to chill out about getting barbecue “right.” Barbecue is supposed to be stress-free. Most things you barbecue take a long time to cook, so you have lots of time to sit around and drink and talk. Use your oven on a low setting to hold a foil-wrapped cut of barbecued meat until you’re ready to serve. “Or," she says, "wrap that pork butt in a towel and stick it in a small cooler. The pros all let their meat rest like that before judging and really, it makes for a juicier product.” If your meat is slightly overcooked, she says, hit it with some sauce. If it’s not done exactly on time, let it cook a bit longer. “Your momma will wait an hour. Just relax.” Cookston says.
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? The barbecue gods must have also put in a good word for Melissa with the calendar gods. Come spring, she now has plans to watch that same daughter receive her high school diploma… the weekend after Memphis in May, where she’ll attempt to win her third Grand Championship. “You gotta love what you do. But sometimes, the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
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? MELISSA COOKSTON’S QUICK AND EASY BBQ RUB
? ½ cup turbinado sugar (brown sugar may be substituted)
? 2 tablespoons salt
? 2 tablespoons granulated garlic
? 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
? 1 teaspoon cumin
? 2 teaspoons black pepper (can add more if using on beef)
? 4 tablespoons light chili powder
? 2 tablespoons paprika
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