A legend takes a curtain call: Melissa Cookston hangs up her barbecue fork

By , Daily Memphian Updated: June 02, 2023 1:24 PM CT | Published: May 20, 2023 4:00 AM CT

Of course she hopes she wins, that she takes home another big grand champion trophy. And everyone competing at Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest holds the same hope as Melissa Cookston.

But for her, “the winningest woman in barbecue,” this is her last hurrah.

“I don’t want to be Brett Favre,” she said. “I don’t want to hang around too long.”

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She was in a camping chair with a fan on her and a breeze blowing right in off the river.

“I’ve never been on the river before so I decided we’d do it this year,” she said. “So I paid for it when we entered, that’s how I got this spot. I knew then this was going to be my last year, it’s not something I just decided on the spur of the moment. So I said ‘let’s do it, let’s get on the river.’ ”

She’s not retiring; she’s just done with competition. She has The BBQ Allstars store in Southaven, Memphis Barbecue Co. restaurant in Horn Lake, a Netflix series, a mail order business, a product line and her finger in half a dozen other pies.

But it’s the World Junior BBQ League, which she founded in 2019, that has her heart now.

“I will tell you this, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing children winning awards and seeing the boost in confidence they get,” Cookston said. “We’re for all kids, but we make a point of trying to appeal to those with special needs, and not everyone is an athlete either. But everyone can learn how to barbecue.”

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If Cookston were a golfer, she might never have started competing in barbecue. She and her husband Pete Cookston started competing at small festivals in 1997 and she once said it was because she needed at outlet for her competitive nature, but she didn’t want to take up golf.

Though her day job was working as John Grisham’s paralegal when he was a DeSoto County lawyer, she always worked in restaurants, too. She and Pete met when working at a Willie Moffatt’s and he took her to a barbecue contest on their first date; she was hooked, ready to throw her ribs in the ring.

By the time she came to Memphis in May in 2008, Cookston was competing whole hog all the way. And her team was small: Cookston, her husband, her daughter and her mother.

And she did it well. She’s been the whole hog division winner five times and has been grand champion twice.

But now it’s about the kids.

The World Junior BBQ League started locally and has expanded to five states and three countries with the hope of having two more ready before she hosts a competition here in October.

“This year we have a lot of international contests. We’ve been to the Cayman Islands and Guatemala, going to the Bahamas next and looking at Europe. The UK and Greece will be the first two we add but we’re not sure if we can get that ready in time for our October competition,” she said.

The second season of Netflix’s “Barbecue Showdown” premieres May 26. Cookston is a judge in the elimination competition.

“But if they want to watch the first season before this one, they’ll need to search for ‘American Barbecue Showdown’ because the name got changed,” she said.

“They’re mostly backyard cookers, but some have a little competition experience and I just wish you could see how hard we pull for these people,” she said. “Maybe you can in season two, because I haven’t seen it yet, but you can’t really see how hard we’re rooting for them in season one.

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“Michelle Buteau is the host. She is so funny, but I will tell you this, she cries. And when she does, then we have to stop for makeup. So anytime I see her lip quiver, I tell her ‘you better lock that down.’ ”

How about Cookston? Will her lip quiver when it’s all over today?

“I’m not a crier,” she said. “I’ve made great friends here and I’ve loved it, but will I miss it? I don’t think so. What has me excited right now is getting kids unplugged from video games, getting them out doing something where they’re having fun but they’re learning so much.

“They think they’re learning about barbecue, but it’s life skills, it’s a work ethic. It’s more than barbecue.”


Melissa Cookston Memphis In May Memphis in May International Festival Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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