Traditionally, barbecue has been considered a man's game. While the women stay in the kitchen and cook, the men gather 'round the barbecue and, with much fanfare and fire, cook the meat for dinner. It's a little primal and a little sexist, but we let it slide cause it's tradition.
Melissa Cookston won't stand for that, though. The two-time Memphis in May Grand Champion and three-time winner of the World Hog Championship has been putting her barbecue brethren to shame for years as co-owner of the Memphis Barbecue Company. As pitmaster, Cookston is proud to represent not only women in the restaurant industry, but also women in barbecue.
This month, she released a new cookbook, Smokin' in the Boys' Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue, that covers everything from Cookston's history on the competitive barbecue circuit to sauces and sides to truly make your smoked meat shine. It's not all about barbecue, though. The book also covers classic southern recipes like buttermilk fried chicken, red beans and rice and shrimp gumbo.
Recipes or food porn: Though the cookbook is heavier on the recipes than the art, the photos that are included are mouthwatering. Many images illustrate certain recipes, but there are also photos that walk the reader through how to carve certain types of meat or show--with reverence for the animals--where the meat comes from.
The sheer number and variety of recipes makes this cookbook much more than just a coffee table tome, though. In spite of the fact that she's a competitive barbecuer, Cookston is serious about her craft, and that shows in the introduction to each unique recipe and the care she takes in describing every step of the cooking process, be it smoking a brisket or baking a pie.
Ease of use: Barbecue can be a tricky beast, and so much of the flavor that ultimately emerges is dependent upon the rub, smoker and quality of meat. Cookston does everything she can to make the process simple and easy for the lay person by detailing every step. She explains how she does things for competition and how you might want to do things for your own barbecue. She also lists very specific times and temperatures at which to cook the meat, which may, of course, vary based upon smokers and the exact size of the cut of meat. Based on Cookston's estimates, though, I have no doubt that even a novice could create some decent barbecue.
The cookbook is divided by type of meat. There are sections for pork and lamb, bacon, beef, poultry and fish and seafood, as well as a section on barbecue basics and seasonings, injections and sauces. And because no barbecue plate is complete without sides, there's a section with recipes for side dishes and classic southern desserts. This layout makes it easy for you to choose your preferred meat and work from there.
Difficulty of finding ingredients: This is a classic southern cookbook. Houston, though we're sandwiched between west Texas and the Gulf, is essentially a southern town. There is nothing in this cookbook--from racks of ribs to fresh crawfish to crappie (a type of white fish)--that you can't acquire in Houston. Some of the more obscure ingredients like said crappie or cowhorn peppers might be more difficult to find, but in these instances, substitutions are listed.
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Production value: It's a small cookbook, only about eight inches by eight inches square, but it has a hard cover, and the photos and recipes are printed on glossy paper in full color. At 192 pages, absolutely nothing has been left out, but the cookbook doesn't feel cluttered or disorganized. The retail value is $22.99--a good $12 less than most hard cover cookbooks distributed by restaurants--and it seems well worth that price.
Recipes I want to try: As someone who loves barbecue but has never actually attempted to make it, I would love to try the pork ribs. I would need to acquire a smoker, however, which greatly limits my options. For someone with a usual kitchen setup (no fancy smokers or grills), the side dish section might be the best place to start. Fried green tomatoes and cast iron corn bread are high on my list to attempt, as is the traditional Mississippi Mud Pie.
Verdict: If you or someone you know are looking to start barbecuing and you/they have the necessary tools, this would be a great cookbook. It gives very detailed instructions about how to prepare and smoke meat, which is helpful for a novice. A more advanced barbecuer would likely not get much from the book aside from a few side dish and dessert recipes. Still, the fact that an award winning barbecuer is sharing her rubs, marinades and trade secrets is impressive, and anyone who loves smoked meat ought to be interested in what she has to say.
Stats: Smokin' in the Boys' Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue Melissa Cookston Photography by Angie Mosier $22.99 192 pages