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Melissa Cookston: The Winningest Woman in BBQ

By Kathy K. Martin

Melissa Cookston has been in the barbecue business so long that barbecue sauce probably flows through her veins. Her backyard in Hernando is home to about 30 grills and smokers, as well as a recording studio in her outdoor kitchen.

“My husband took me to a barbecue competition years ago, and my competitive nature and love of barbecue had me hooked at first sight.” She spent the next year developing her recipes and perfecting her rub and sauce before opening her restaurants and joining competitions.

Melissa Cookston at the grill

Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Cookston was born in Ruleville and grew up in Greenville. She and her family moved to DeSoto County in the late 80s. For the past 39 years, she and her husband, Pete, have been in the restaurant business. They have owned and operated their catering company and two barbecue restaurants called Memphis BBQ Company, one in Horn Lake and the other in Dunwoody, Georgia, for the past 10 years. She has the distinction of being in the Barbecue Hall of Fame as a seven-time World BBQ Champion and has authored two cookbooks, “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “Smokin’ Hot in the South.”

She describes her barbecue as Memphis-style, which is full-flavored with a mix of the flavors from the regions. “My flavors pull from all the different regions such as the vinegar from the Carolinas, the sweet from Kansas City and the salt, pepper and spicy heat from Texas.”

While she calls herself semi-retired now, she pours her heart into her nonprofit organization, the World Junior BBQ League. Her mission, she says, is to encourage young people to build life skills and work as a team while training in boot camps and competing in barbecue competitions with their peers. “Our kids today need something to do other than the next video game,” explains Cookston. The goal isn’t about competition as much as it’s about comradery and work ethic. “It’s very rewarding to help kids, and I aim for diversity. I want to try and get them all they need to succeed.”

A major part of her business today is an online retail store that ships a wide variety of products. Products include her award-winning barbecue, signature barbecue sauces and seasonings across the country. Customers can choose from ribs, slabs, brisket, pulled pork, Cornish game hens, pork belly bites and a variety of Southern-style side dishes. She offers classic and bold dry rubs and sassy, bold and classic sauces, as well as apparel and grilling accessories. Her daughter, Lauren, also sells a variety of preserves, salts and sauces in the store.

Since the majority of her time is spent tasting and cooking barbecue every day, when she isn’t working, she also isn’t cooking. “I’m more of a ribeye and baked potato kind of girl.”

And now, with most of her focus on her World Junior BBQ League, the winningest woman in barbecue is passing on her competitive skills to the next generation of barbecue champions.

Barbecue Dishes with Melissa Cookston

Competition Pork Baby Back Ribs
  • 2 slabs baby back ribs, about 3 pounds each

  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons Ultimate BBQ Rub

  • ¼ plus 2 tablespoons yellow mustard

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • 4 tablespoons turbinado sugar

  • 4 tablespoons purple grape juice

  • ¼ cup Sweet Glaze (listed below)

  • Chipotle Chile powder, for sprinkling

Sweet Glaze
  • 2 cups BBQ Mother Sauce

  • 1 cup honey

  • 2 tablespoons Basic BBQ Rub

To make the glaze:

  1. In a small saucepan over low heat, stir the mother sauce with the honey until incorporated. Add the rub and stir until the sugars in the rub have dissolved and there is no grainy texture. Remove from the heat, cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

  2. To use, brush on the meat in the last 10 minutes of smoking or 2 minutes of grilling (so the glaze doesn’t burn).

Cooking the Ribs

Rinse the ribs and remove the membrane from the back. Trim any excess fat from the tops of the slabs. Trim 1 bone from the large end of the ribs and 2 bones from the small end. This will give you a much more consistent slab for cooking.

Starting on the backs, sprinkle the ribs with approximately 1 1⁄2 teaspoons of rub each, then add 1 1⁄2 teaspoons mustard each and massage into the meat. Flip the ribs over and repeat. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. For a contest, I marinate ribs like this for 12 to 16 hours.

Prepare a smoker to cook at 225°F with around 4 chunks of apple wood and 4 chunks of cherry wood so that the wood will smolder throughout the cooking. Remove the ribs from the refrigerator, unwrap, and repeat the rub and mustard procedure, massaging them in. Don’t get it too thick or paste-like, as this will give you a dark appearance when cooked.

Place the ribs in the smoker meat side up and cook for 2 hours. Remove the ribs from the smoker and increase the temperature to 250°F. Apply rub and mustard to both sides of the ribs as before. On each of the top sides, slather approximately 1 tablespoon of honey over the surface, then sprinkle heavily with about 2 tablespoons of turbinado sugar each. Lay the ribs meat side down on a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and fold up the edges. Pour 2 tablespoons of purple grape juice into the bottom of the foil for each rib then finish wrapping the ribs, but don’t crimp the edges—you want steam to be able to escape.

Return the ribs to the cooker for 2 hours, then test for tenderness. (I cook ribs at this stage until they look overdone and too tender. Don’t worry; they’ll tighten up. If they still have too much texture, leave them in for 20 to 30 more minutes.) Remove the ribs from the cooker, open the foil, and drain off the liquid. Brush sauce on the bone side of the ribs. Then, using the foil as a tool, “roll” the ribs over so the meat side is up and glaze the tops. Using long tongs, carefully remove the ribs from the foil and place them back in the smoker for 15 minutes. This will let the glaze cook onto the ribs and let the ribs tighten back up. Remove from the cooker and allow to rest for 5 minutes, apply a very thin coat of glaze to “glisten” the ribs, then very lightly sprinkle with chipotle powder before serving.

Baked BBQ Beans
  • 1-pound dried navy beans, soaked in water overnight, drained and rinsed

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 6 cups water

  • 1/2 cup trimmings from your favorite bacon brand, diced

  • 1/4 cup diced celery

  • 1 large yellow onion, diced

  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced

  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 cup BBQ Mother Sauce

  • 1/3 cup molasses

  • 1/4 cup yellow mustard

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar 1⁄2 cup Ultimate BBQ Rub

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

  1. Combine the beans, salt and water in a large pot, bring to a boil, and then decrease the heat and simmer for 3 to 3 1/2 hours or until the beans are soft.

  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the bacon trimmings for 3 to 4 minutes, then add the celery, onion, and peppers and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute.

  3. In a large casserole dish, combine the beans, the bacon and pepper mixture, the mother sauce, molasses, mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, rub and cayenne, and stir.

  4. Cover and bake for 1 hour, then uncover and continue to bake until thick and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes longer.

Smoked Chicken Salad
  • 1 pound pulled smoked chicken

  • 1 cup mayonnaise

  • 1 cup halved seedless red grapes

  • ½ cup diced sweet gherkin pickles, plus 2 tablespoons pickle juice

  • 1/3 cup finely diced celery

  • ¼ cup finely diced white onion

  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts

  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt

  • ¾ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

  1. In a large mixing bowl, fold all the ingredients together to incorporate without breaking apart the chicken too much. Serve over butter lettuce with sliced fresh tomatoes and strawberries for a cool salad or on sliced pumpernickel or wheat bread as a sandwich.

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