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A day with the Pitmasters

Commemorative Hawg with a Heart to raise funds for Operation BBQ Relief

More News

National Barbecue News: The whole smokin’ story

By R. Kell Phelps
Publisher, NBBQN

This story is dedicated to Doc Gillis, Joe Phelps and anyone else their dream has touched since they decided to help spread the word about this “barbecue thing” over 25 years ago. Without their inspiration and ideas, none of this would be possible. Job well done to both of these barbecue gurus and the hundreds of others who have helped pave this barbecue trail we are all on.  I can only hope that I keep the flame alive for the next 25 years to inspire or influence the barbecue world half as much as you guys have.

Over the next 12 months, we plan to revisit information from past issues and would love to also have your thoughts and memories about the paper. Feel free to send them to us!

Things got started back in the fall of 1987 when two fishing buddies (Joe and Doc) decided to enter a local barbecue cook-off that November. The Smokehouse team practiced up for that first event and actually took first and third place finishes in their entered categories. Because of their finish, the team got a paid invite to the prestigious Big Pig Jig in Vienna, GA, the following year. The team practiced for nearly an entire year getting ready and finished that first Big Pig Jig with a third place rib. That started a fire that has yet to be extinguished.

Needless to say, I was much younger in those days, but I can really remember how much work was involved and how much satisfaction was felt to hear your name called for an award. One of my best memories came at that our first Big Pig Jig when Doc Gillis patted me on the back after I agreed to stay up and tend the fires all night long on the cooker. Doc told me, “Son, I cannot tell you how important of a job this is. Just know we are all trusting you with this job.” Of course, I was scared to death, but I also knew I had several others to back me up if I failed to hear my alarm in my tent. With the confidence that Doc gave me that night and with the final outcome at awards, I felt like we could go and win the World Championship!

The Smokehouse team went on to compete in about 15 major barbecue events. The record books show the team finished with two overall Grand Championships, eight first place category wins, and a sixth and eighth place finish at Memphis In May World Barbecue Cooking Contest. Every event the team competed at was sanctioned by Memphis In May (or what is now known today as the Memphis Barbecue Network). There were lots of teams who showed up without the enclosed trailer rigs that we see so often today. We actually had a front porch of an old house built that we carried around on a flat bed trailer and would set up and tear back down at each event. I cannot help but wonder how many would actually do this today if things had not changed over the past 25 years.

Doc and Joe decided to start the National Barbecue News. late in the 1989 season. They actually thought of the idea when trying to plan for their upcoming season and could not find any information about the events they were talking about competing in. Phone calls to gather that information is really how this little barbecue rag actually got its start. In late January of 1990, the very first issue was published, printed, and mailed to over 300 fellow barbecuers who were mostly friends the team had met on the barbecue circuit.

If you go back and look at what was happening in the barbecue world at that time, you will see that the creation of this publication came at the start of a great barbecue storm. KCBS was just getting started in a big way, several Texas associations were already going, and the National Barbecue Association was also getting ready to fire up. Memphis In May was growing with their sanctioned network with over 60 events listed on the calendar for 1992. Over the next two years, the paper saw a really big growth pattern as it went from a normal eight pages to an average count of 20 pages. The number of readers also increased from that 300 start to just over 850.

I will now let you in on a few secrets that almost no one really knows. If you look at the way I end every column I write, I will sign off with the words, “Until next month…Keep it smokin’.” If you ever read Doc Gillis’s columns, you will see that he ended every time with “Til Next Month.” I do this to honor him and will do so as long as I write for this paper. The next secret deals with our mascot, Mr. Ben Quein’. I have no idea where the original mascot came from, but in the November 1992 issue, it was reported that he showed up at the American Royal and sacrificed himself with a first place rib win and first place shoulder win. From there a contest was held to find our new mascot, and a small design firm from Nashville, TN, won with the creation of our now nearly famous Mr. Ben Quein’.

The next really big change for the magazine came in January of 1999 when Doc Gillis went back into his dental practice. At that same time, Joe and Carlene Phelps decided to dedicate more time to growing the National Barbecue News. after selling their local newspaper and shopping guide they had started in 1980. This was a huge change as Doc had been featured in every single issue up to that time. Around that time as Carlene Phelps came on as editor, she began to seek out several other monthly contributors to help diversify the content that was inside each month. Her column named “All’s Fair in Love, War and Barbecue” covered a ton of hot topics, which always keep readers guessing what she would come up with next.

Over the next few years, the paper grew to over 2,000 readers per month and also underwent a huge format change in May of 2001 when it changed from a tabloid sized newspaper to the magazine shape and size that it still holds today. This proved to be very successful as the National Barbecue Association (NBBQA) named the publication as its official publication in June of 2001. In short terms, this means that every member of the NBBQA would get a copy of the paper each month, and it would also feature a two page newsletter from the association each month. Since then, we have been honored to work for this association and always try to keep those readers in mind when developing new story ideas.

In June of 2003, I officially became publisher of the National Barbecue News. I have actually been helping with the magazine since its start in one form or another. It was very different for me to come out of my shell of working mostly behind the scenes to take the reigns and lead this paper to what it has become today. I still have problems when readers tell me how much they look forward to getting the paper each month because I know for a fact that it is not my limited writings that keep the folks wanting more, yet it is the hundred or so other folks who have or do contribute their efforts each month that has them hooked. I only wish at those times I could simply hit speed dial button on my phone and say, “Hey, guys, I have this person who wants to tell you thanks.” I also wish I could name each and every one of them here with a big THANK YOU! Without that content each month, we would, without any doubt, be doing something much different to earn a living.

The entire Phelps and Gillis families have played very important roles to get us to where we are today, but we are all very aware that we are truly the lucky ones who get to work for you…our readers and advertisers…each and every month! I know it has been a very quick 25 years since this all started, and both Joe and Doc, as well as many of our other contributors, have passed on to a much greater place. Another thing this experience has taught me is to make sure I live and enjoy today as if it were my last because you never know when it might be your last. With that, I simply say thank you again for all your support, offerings, and love in general because without you, there would be no National Barbecue News.

Until Next Month…Keep It Smokin’!

In April of 1999 Southern Living, the National Barbecue News was featured in an article that focused on Doc Gillis and Joe Phelps.

Joe and Doc at one of their last competitions before starting the
National Barbecue News in January of 1990.

Rocky Danner has been all over the world and even hosted a World Championship event in Jamaica in 2003. He has been a steady contributor for
over 20 years!

No one has contributed more articles to the
National Barbecue News than Bob Lyon, who started writing in the November 1990 issue and still contributes today.

June 2001 saw the National Barbecue Association adopt the National Barbecue News as its official publication to keep its members informed about all things barbecue, and even a younger Myron Mixon was being featured for his crazy winning streaks.

Doug Mosley added his book review contribution and helped add yet another layer of readers to the growing subscriber list.

Our newest regular columnists have been keeping the roads hot with articles about different barbecue joints and events happening from coast to coast.

Memphis BBQ Company wows Atlanta

Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
By Vernee Green-Meyers

When Melissa Cookston and John Wheeler decided to partner together to open a BBQ restaurant in 2011, the Memphis Barbecue Company was born.  The first location in Horn Lake, Mississippi was opened in December 2011 with great success.  Soon thereafter, Melissa and Pete Cookston opened a second location was opened in Fayetteville, North Carolina in December 2012.  This year, Pete and Melissa opened a third location opened August, 2014, in Dunwoody, Georgia, close to Perimeter Mall.

As the Pitmaster of Yazoo’s Delta Q, Melissa Cookston has won six World BBQ Championships.  Her commitment to quality and fresh ingredients helped her become “the Winningest Woman in BBQ.”  The Cookstons have transferred their drive for excellence from the competition BBQ circuit to their restaurants.  All of their food is made from scratch right in the kitchen.  They use the highest quality ingredients and cook BBQ fresh daily.  Every night they make a “smoker drop” where they load up two Southern Pride commercial smokers with meats around 9:00 pm where it will smoke from 10 to 16 hours over Pecan wood.  The morning Pitmaster comes in a 7:00 AM and starts pulling the meats to start preparing for the lunch crowd.  Every afternoon around 2:00 PM, the Pitmaster loads up the smoker with ribs and chicken for the evening crowd.   When you walk into the restaurant, the smell is heavenly.  You know you are about to have authentic, wood-smoked BBQ.  

The friendly staff seats you and gives you a basket of homemade, fresh-made, deep-fried pork rinds, while you look over the menu.  It’s hard to put down the pork rinds long enough to look at the menu!  In addition to the traditional BBQ fare, they have a variety of appetizers that will knock your socks off!  The Cheese Fritters, which has been featured on several television shows, is a blend of four cheeses and seasonings, deep-fried, and served with homemade honey-dijon dressing.  You’re not sure what to expect, but the minute you bite into the first one, you don’t stop until they are gone!   Some of the other appetizers are Fried Green Tomatoes, BBQ Shrimp, Smokin’ Wings, and my personal favorite, BBQ Nachos.  You can also get Chicken Tenders and Queso and Chips for that one person that isn’t in the mood for BBQ.  They do have salads and such, where you can of course, add pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken or salmon to any salad!

Their menu includes traditional “Memphis Style” World Championship Barbecue for the main courses.  You have ribs, pork, beef brisket, chicken, and sausage.  When you order the Pitmasters Sampler, the most popular sampler platter, you get a half slab of Spare or Baby Back Ribs plus a choice of two other meats and two sides served with a huge chunk of cornbread.  The hardest decision is deciding between Brisket, Pork, Pulled Chicken, a 1/4 chicken (white or dark), or Sausage.  The second hardest decision is which sides you want.  In addition to the traditional potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans, they have some interesting side items you don’t see at most BBQ restaurants such as BBQ Spaghetti, Red Beans N Rice, and Stone Ground Grits.  The BBQ Spaghetti could be a meal in itself.  

Some of their non-traditional entrees, Memphis BBQ Company favorites, have a creole flair like the VooDoo Pasta, a grilled chicken over penne with sausage and a creole sauce.  Another favorite is the BBQ Shrimp and Grits, a traditional creole dish with Memphis BBQ Company twist.  Jumbo Gulf Shrimp are wrapped in house-cured bacon, glazed with MBC sauce, and then served over grits with butter sauce.  Then you have two legendary sandwiches which are equally famous among their customers and fans.  “The Squeeler” is a full pound of pulled pork, topped with squeeler sauce and coleslaw.  It’s a very big sandwich with very hot sauce!  “The Donut Burger” is equally renowned and as their menu says, “Don’t think of this as burgers on donut buns, think of it as Heaven with American cheese!”  It is an amazing hamburger with a slightly sweet flavor that makes you wish you had ordered two!

After you’ve had your fill of smoked goodness, you have to polish off the meal with a “Mississippi Mud Pie,” a monster size dessert with a warm brownie on the bottom, vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream and marshmallow cream, drizzled with chocolate syrup, and topped with a fresh sprig of mint.  We ordered one to share and were almost fighting on the cup!

Everything about Memphis BBQ Co. was top-notch.  They have excellent servers, world-class pitmasters, and fabulous bartenders.  I highly recommend everyone make the trip to try it.  We drove two hours to eat there and cannot wait to go back!

Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
The Squealer Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Donut Burger to go Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Baby Back Ribs Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
General Manager Tony Mongello Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Mississippi Mud Pie Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Pitmaster's Sampler Platter with Mac n Cheese and BBQ Spaghetti Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
MBC serves with Melissa’s book Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Beef Brisket Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Kitchen staff Photo by Southern Girls BBQ Roadshow
Customers enjoying dinner and homemade pork rinds


Cold weather? Barbecue Soup anyone?

By Kent Whitaker
The Deck Chef



National Barbecue News is proud to be official publication of the following organizations:


National Barbecue
2014 Barbecue
Book of the Year

By Doug Mosley


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