3 Women of Barbecue You Need to Know About

You've heard of competitive cooking, but have you heard of competition barbecue? The best part: some of the most respected (and fiercest!) contenders are women. We caught up with them at Memphis In May, one of barbecue's biggest showdowns, and found out what inspires their quest for perfect smoked meat.
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You've heard of competitive cooking, but have you heard of competition barbecue? The best part: some of the most respected (and fiercest!) contenders are women. We caught up with them at Memphis In May, one of barbecue's biggest showdowns, and found out what inspires their quest for perfect smoked meat.

Memphis in May

They don't call this pork-centric competition the Superbowl of Swine for nuthin'!

Memphis in May

Melissa Cookston

Team: Yazoo's Delta Q, Hernando, MS

Specialty: Whole Hog

The day before Memphis In May, Cookston and her Yazoo's Delta Q teammate, husband Pete Cookston, dress a 200-plus- pound beast and spend the next 22 hours coaxing it toward deliciousness -- injecting the meat with pork stock to keep it moist, fueling the pit with wood to create sweet-tasting smoke and more. That perfectionism has paid off: Cookston has swept some of the circuit's most prestigious tournaments, landed a judging role on the show BBQ Pitmasters, and published a new cookbook, Smokin' in the Boys' Room. When she started competing, some fellas suggested she take on an easier cut, like ribs. "So I started with whole hogs," says Cookston. "I wanted to master the hardest thing."

Melissa Cookston

Behind the Scenes

Perfect barbecue is all about the timing.

Behind the Scenes

Hot Stuff

Hot coals are key to maintaining steady, smoldering heat in the barbecue pit.

Keep it Hot!

Piggy Perfection

Here's a whole hog, smoked to perfection, ready for judging.

Piggy Perfection

Sides Matter

Barbecue isn't complete without baked beans on the side.

Sides Matter

Judgment Time!

Cookston and her husband, Pete, assemble plates for judges -- gotta make 'em pretty! Insider tip: Most home grills and smokers can't handle a whole hog, but you can use Cookston's winning technique to turn out tender pork shoulder.

Championship Pulled Pork

Amy Mills Tunnicliffe

Team: Apple City Barbecue, Murphysboro, IL

Specialty: Ribs

"Barbecue is in my blood," says Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, a third-generation pit master whose father, Mike Mills, is barbecue royalty. When Amy and Mike's team, Apple City Barbecue, threw down at Memphis In May last year, it was their first time competing there in nearly two decades. Tunnicliffe has had her hands full -- she's a restaurateur, a cookbook author and the owner of OnCue consulting, which has her teaching the business of barbecue all over the globe. But when she's on the circuit, she goes back to basics. "We compete with the original pit that we've cooked in for more than 20 years," she says. Tunnicliffe starts her ribs at 4 A.M. on the day of judging, so they can cook over very low heat at a leisurely pace -- close to six hours -- to turn out the most succulent meat possible. "Patience and letting the ribs tenderize in the pit is what makes them taste best."

Amy Mills Tunnicliffe

Behind the Scenes

These racks of ribs are rubbed, ready and en route to the smoker.

Behind the Scenes

Nice Kicks!

Tunnicliffe's signature monogrammed boots, complete with flying pigs.

Nice Kicks!

Décor Matters

Competitors go all out when decorating their tents.

Décor Matters

What a Crowd

More than 70,000 folks show up for the fun each year.

What a Crowd

Sweet & Smoky Ribs

Spritzing your ribs with apple juice while you're cooking adds a layer of flavor and extra moisture.

Sweet & Smoky Ribs

Sweet & Smoky Ribs

Carolyn Wells

Co-Founder: The Kansas City Barbecue Society

Official Judge: Memphis in May

What brought Carolyn Wells to Memphis In May wasn't her cooking, but her cred as an arbiter of the world's best 'cue. Though she began her barbecue career as a competitor, Wells is better known as a founder of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, one of the world's most influential barbecue organizations. At Memphis In May, Wells arrives at 9 A.M. to start tasting with the other judges. The competitors have spent hours, even days, coddling their meat, but they must impress each judge with their hospitality, presentation and, of course, their 'cue in a mere 15 minutes. Once their time's up, "I score them and go on to the next team and the next," says Wells. "By the end of the day, I've eaten quite a bit of protein. It's a labor of love!"

Carolyn Wells

Behind the Scenes

Wells considers the non-pork contenders in Memphis in May's "Anything But" category.

Behind the Scenes

Get Saucy

Rating barbecue sauce is part of the judging process.

Get Saucy

Don't Forget Beer

Attendees form a keg line to transfer suds to the judging tent.

Don't Forget the Beer!

Cheers

The reward for a job well done? A trophy and some hooch to toast with!

Cheers!

You Grill, Girl!

Part of the beauty of Memphis in May is that anyone can join, not just previous champs. (Other contests require a win to qualify!) Dianna Thompson, pictured with her beer-can chicken, has been competing here with her team, the Pot Bellie Cookers, for seven years.

Spiced Beer-Can Chicken

Spiced Beer-Can Chicken

Cooking a whole chicken over a can of beer keeps the meat moist and adds so much flavor you don't even need to smoke with wood chips.

Spiced Beer-Can Chicken

Spiced Beer-Can Chicken