Anything You Can Smoke, I Can Smoke Better: Breaking Down Gender Binaries in BBQ

Big Apple BBQ may not have female headliners, but these women are out to prove that barbecue is no longer a man's job

There’s nothing “cute” about their ‘cue. (From left: Elizabeth Karmel and Melissa Cookston)

Smoked brisket with a perfectly juicy, pink center, savory ribs with just the right amount of sweet and tangy sauce slathered on top, all paired with a side of cool slaw and bread to mop it up. Unless you’re a vegan, the temptation of Southern barbecue is universal. It’s certainly not bound by gender stereotypes.

This weekend is the 14th annual Big Apple BBQ festival in New York’s Madison Square Park, one of the largest celebrations of Southern-style meaty ‘cue this side of the Mason-Dixon line. But out of 13 celebrated pitmasters who will be showing off their chops (and shoulders and ribs), there are zero women headliners (Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue and Leslie Roark Scott of Ubon’s Barbeque are cooking with their legendary pitmaster dads at the festival this year). This was the same story in 2015 and the year before that too. In fact, there have been no solo female headliners at the festival as far back as Big Apple’s records go.

But don’t think that thriving lady smokers are an endangered species.

One ‘cue pioneer is Lee Ann Whippen, who was the first female finalist on the BBQ Pitmasters reality show and had two restaurants (Wood Chicks in Chesapeake, now closed, and Chicago Q, which she left to open Frozen Foodies — a specialty frozen food store).


“It’s kind of perplexing to me why more women aren’t drawn to the flame,” Barbecue consultant, “Grill Girl,” and former Hill Country Barbecue pitmaster Elizabeth Karmel said. She was on her way back from a barbecue summit in Cleveland where she was the only woman there. “It used to be that building a fire was seen as the man’s domain, but now that working with a grill is as easy as flipping a switch, more women should and are getting into this. Just not as many as we’d like.”