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The Mississippi queen of que shares her secrets in new cookbook

By Doug Mosley

Anybody who is moderately familiar with competition barbecue knows who Melissa Cookston is. Even someone who has never attended a competition has probably learned about her through one of her many TV appearances (The Today Show; Chopped; BBQ Pitmasters; Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; or The Chew). She’s also been written up in countless publications and recently the media blitz launched for her first book. And if one has been so fortunate to have stopped by one of her restaurants in Mississippi or North Carolina, they’ve gotten to know her through her ‘cue.

There’s no doubt about it – Melissa Cookston is one of the hottest names in barbecue right now, but don’t be mistaken for why. Cookston may have gained early recognition for her accomplishments as a female in a male-dominated field, but now her fame is high simply because she is one of the top pitmasters in the world. When you get a chance to listen and learn from one of the best, that’s an opportunity you don’t pass up. The chance to hear from Cookston is presented in her new book, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue ($22.99, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 192 pp.).

I love to watch the rise of barbecue great like Cookston, first earning their chops on the competition circuit, then gaining attention through various media opportunities and ultimately getting a chance to tell their own story in a book. Some who come to mind through this formula are Chris Lilly, Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe and Myron Mixon are three to come readily to mind. While the hook to Cookston’s story is that she’s the winningest woman in barbecue, she had to put in the same grind of years of hard work and trial and error that ultimately led to world championships. In the pages of this book, she also exhibits the same special attitude that separates the greats from the pretty good, and she doesn’t mind taking a dig or two along the way at all the defeated competitors who thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and not the one at a barbecue competition.

Along with the story, there’s plenty of quality to what Cookston offers up in this book. Her recipes are true Mississippi Delta, with dishes like Pork Tamales, Peppered Pork Tenderloin with Hoecakes and Mississippi Caviar, Delta Juke Burgers, Natchez Chicken Breasts and Fried Oysters with Red Pepper Mayo. There’s also a really good chapter on desserts that will have you licking the photos on the pages.

There’s no doubt about it, the results prove that Melissa Cookston is one of the best in barbecue no matter the gender. Get her new book today and get a look at what makes her great.

There’s two other women in barbecue who have long been among my favorites and together they go by the moniker “the BBQ Queens”. All totalled, Karen Adler and Judith Fertig have written 20 books that have sold over 500,000 copies and they’ve been positively reviewed in this space a number of times. They’ve kept their collaborations fresh by focusing on topics, whether it be specific kinds of food, as they did in Fish & Shellfish, Grilled & Smoked, or for throwing a party, as in BBQ Bash. Their new book goes in a different direction yet Patio Pizzeria: Artisan Pizza & Flatbreads on the Grill ($20, Running Press, 240 pp.).

While this isn’t the first book on pizza that it has been my privilege to tell you about, this is easily one of the best. It’s one thing to put together a book of recipes on the topic, but not many go into the detail on tips and techniques like Adler and Fertig do in this book. That’s what makes “Patio Pizzeria” outstanding, because let’s face it – how many times did you utterly fail at pizza on the grill before you finally figured it out. I believe the authors understand that and they set out in this book to usher us all through that process. This is literally a primer to pizza (and flatbreads and more) on the grill.

As great as it is how they handled technique, Adler and Fertig also should be lauded for the variety of recipes they present. There are over 100 and they include (in addition to pizza and flatbread) bruschettas, sandwiches and paninis, focaccias, piadines and calzones.

If you’re looking to do pizzas (and flatbreads and bruschettas and so on) on your grill, this is the book you want to have at hand. The BBQ Queens have once again demonstrated why they are barbecue royalty.

OK guys, I can hear your grumbling already. Hang with me here, I have something a bit more testosterone fueled up next!

So there’s this group of buddies and they live in Chicago. They bond over their shared interests of meat, beer and rock & roll. Their group grows to include, in their own words, “a handful of guys burning bad burgers on the roof of an apartment building…passing around some skunked cans of domestic grandpa beer”. But eventually they get to be better cooks and start buying better beer, some driven by refining tastes but mostly through the competitive nature of guys trying to top each other at these regular gatherings (called “meatings”). As time goes on, the makeup of this specific group changes as guys come and go, but the ones who go seek to stay connected with the group, or at least to the idea, so this spawns new groups. One thing leads to another and soon there is this network of groups of guys dedicated to those same ideals – meat, beer and rock & roll – and then someone comes up with the brilliant idea of launching a web site to help everyone stay connected. And thus is born Beyond that, it was only a matter of time before there’s a book, and that time is now with the release of ManBQue: 120 Essential Recipes for the Modern Man by John Carruthers and Jesse Valenciana ($22, Running Press, 256 pp.).

This might be the manliest book of all the cookbooks for men that men have ever written. It is so manly that is should probably include a label on the cover prohibiting it from being read by women or impressionable children. There’s no chapter on frilly appetizers, none on healthy veggies and certainly not one on delicate desserts. It leads off with a chapter on beer, then several on meat and ends with a chapter on rock & roll. And it’s all written in a very manly tone. For instance, a section that others might title Fire Management is instead head Light the Damn Thing. The names on the recipes are another example, with burgers being named The Butkus and The Graceland, others such as Day Drinking Brisket and The Trash Talker (a loaded hot dog).

I have to give lots of credit to the authors and publisher on making this book great. I’ve seen so many other books where a unique concept and good content are left flat with little or no photos and a wimpy graphic layout. That’s not the case here; this is really a well-done book through and through. So as much fine as the whole idea of this one is, it is also a good looking book that you’ll enjoy reading.

So men, this book is for you. Do the manly thing and go buy your way into ManBQue today.

I opened this month talking about Mississippi’s Melissa Cookston, so let’s end this month back in Mississippi. Just south of Oxford is a small town called Water Valley, located near the headwaters of Enid Lake nowhere near any exit off Interstate 55, which flies by just to the west. The chamber of commerce describes Water Valley as quaint and admits that “if you blink your eyes, you might just miss it”.

As remote and small as it may be, there is a bit of a revitalization movement afoot there and it even drew the notice of the venerable New York Times. It’s being driven by new businesses that are drawn to the small town flavor (as well as small town affordability). One of those businesses is a bit of a throwback to a simpler time and is the subject of The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from a Southern Revival by Alexe van Beuren, recipes by Dixie Grimes ($29.99, Clarkson Potter, 240 pp.).

This is the classic American success story: a small business is opened, struggles, perseveres and eventually thrives as it becomes part of the community fabric. A stroke of luck happens along the way when a five-star chef walks in the door looking for work and before you know it, here comes that reporter from New York City and soon a book is in the making. The story is so remarkable that it seems it must have come from Hollywood instead of Mississippi.

Alexe van Beuren is the person who took that gamble on opening a modern day general store in Water Valley and Dixie Grimes is the five-star chef who helped the business turn the corner. Grimes may also be the culprit for introducing Water Valley to a whole new range of flavors, such as the Roasted Pear and Zucchini Soup that was so good it made its way into that New York Times article. It was Grimes’ soups that van Beuren credits with grabbing so many’s attentions, such as the Mississippi Catfish Gumbo, Curried Cauliflower Soup and Spinach Artichoke Bisque.

While van Beuren shares the stories, written in a way that it seems like she’s telling them to you herself over a cup of coffee at the B.T.C., it is Grimes’ recipes and the accompanying photos that you’ll really enjoy. It’s a full flavor of good ol’ southern flavors and you’ll understand exactly what keeps them coming in the door after flipping through them.

We all live in this minute-by-minute, big-box chain store lifestyle every day, but wouldn’t it be nice to slip away to Water Valley and enjoy one of Cora Ray’s Fried Pies every now and then? Buy this book and then, no matter where you are, you can make for your own sojourns.

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