top of page

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).