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

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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)

Karmel mentioned Danielle “Diva Q” Bennett — who was a finalist in the BBQ Pitmasters reality show last year — and Melissa Cookston, author of Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room and owner of Memphis BBQ Co. as culinary “forces to be reckoned with” in the still male-dominated business, as colleagues she admires.

When it comes to keeping up with the boys, Cookston has no problem holding her own. She is an avid participant in the competitive barbecue circuit, which is the best way to make a name for yourself in the industry.

“Luckily I’ve been around so long people haven’t realized I’m a girl yet,” Cookston jokes. “The guys always expect me to just cook ribs and they’re surprised when I say ‘hell no!’ I will find a way to get that 150-pound whole hog in the smoker all by myself, thank you very much.”

It can take Cookston about 24 hours to smoke a whole hog, and when she does two days of competitions, that’s 48 hours straight of no sleep, constantly tending to the flame and the smoker to make sure the meat comes out perfect.

“I’m always amazed when young girls come up to me and say things like ‘you’re my hero!’ or when they ask me for advice,” she said. “I didn’t have a family legacy. I had to learn everything all on my own.”

Family legacy is still a pretty important part of the ‘cue world where secret recipes for sauces and rubs are passed down from generation to generation and guarded with the intensity of any priceless heirloom. For Amy Mills and Leslie Roark Scott who will both be appearing this weekend at the festival this weekend alongside their fathers, that family tradition is alive and cooking. Leslie is the daughter of Garry Roark and the granddaughter of the legendary Ubon Roark. She was a finalist on Chopped Grill Masters and, in 1992, became the first woman to win a barbecue championship at the Mississippi State BBQ championship.

“We’ve been laying the road for a long time; it’s just taking a little longer to get there but we’ve always been there,” Roark Scott says. “For me, it’s about the brand rather than the person leading the brand. Right, now my dad is the face of Ubon’s, but I have plans to take over when he retires. My son is currently on [Food Network’s] Kids BBQ Championship so it definitely is a family affair.”

She attributes her father’s know-how and attitude to much of her success behind the grill. When she won her first championship at age 19, the judges kept looking to her dad to see if she was “the real deal.” He would constantly tell them, “Don’t look at me! Look at her!”

For Amy Mills, heiress to 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Illinois, she never really worried about the lack of women in her field, and thinks that will change over time as ‘cue becomes more popular in the media and outside of small Southern towns.

Like all barbecue pitmasters, these women take pride in their work and will fiercely protect secret sauce ingredients, woodchip recipes, and will debate the merits of sweet vs. spicy vs. tangy until long after their fire has gone out. Amy Mills favors a savory take on barbecue with the flavor of spices and applewood. Leslie Roark Scott’s ‘cue is sweet and tangy with both a rub and a sauce. Elizabeth Karmel lets her meat do the talking and doesn’t like to overpower her ‘cue with too many flavors. Melissa Cookston makes everything from scratch and goes for a balanced flavor — not too sweet or spicy. 

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“I’m a byproduct of an older time,” Cookston said. “My prediction is that in the years to come, you’ll see more girls interested in barbecue. Man, woman, or child, at the end of the day there are winners and losers and whoever is the best pitmaster should be headlining. It’s as simple as that.”