Melissa Cookston, the reigning queen of barbecue, called last year's stellar showings by her Yazoo's Delta Q team a dream come true: "It really was a Cinderella year."
Not only did she and her husband, Pete, win the top title at last year's Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest with their whole hog entry, but they then repeated the showing at the National Championship in Washington, D.C. "I think we had something like nine grand championships last year," said Cookston of Nesbit, Miss.
State of Q
She was also a finalist on the popular "BBQ Pitmasters" TV show on TLC. "We actually went to California to film that right after being in Washington, D.C. We went from East Coast to West Coast." And, yes, they hauled their rig all that way.
The filming lasted about two weeks. "It's interesting to see how TV shows are put together," she said. "When you see the final product, you don't really realize all that goes into it."
While she didn't win, the experience led to another project, which Cookston is hush-hush about for the time being. "I'm not at liberty to say," she said with a chuckle.
Yazoo's Delta Q has already competed in two contests this year, coming out on top at both. "We won the grand championship with ribs at Southaven," said Cookston, who has been on the competition circuit for 15 years, and doing it full time since 2007. "It's what we eat, sleep and breathe," she said.
In between competitions, the Cookstons teach barbecue, filling in potential competitors on their winning ways. That seems incredibly gracious, doesn't it?
"Most of the students are already competing against us," she said. "We're essentially showing them how to beat us. We give away everything. I don't feel good about taking somebody's money unless I show them everything."
The classes fill up quickly and have become popular far beyond the Memphis barbecue world.
"I've also got a private class with restaurateurs from Chicago coming down. We bring them into our home and treat them like family," Cookston said.
So what is the champ planning for this year's competition? Will she stick with the winning formula?
"You know, barbecue evolves," she said. "You need to be able to grow and change. If you don't, you get left behind."
Over the winter, they worked on a few things, tweaking recipes here and there. "I try to forecast where it's going. I don't feel comfortable forecasting because I haven't really gotten my feet wet yet this year. And I don't want to give anybody a heads up."
Her path to evolving Yazoo's Delta Q's style is methodical. There are no happy accidents, she said.
"I'm a firm believer in making your own luck," she said.
Two areas she's constantly looking at improving are taste and texture, sometimes working with various breeds of pig. "When we cook whole hog, we treat each one as an individual. That's why I name each one of them."
Last year's Memphis in May Grand Champion was named Fred.
Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
The contest runs through Saturday at Tiger Lane at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Tickets: Online through Ticketmaster.com or by calling (800) 745-3000; or at the gates off East Parkway between Southern and Central, at Central and Early Maxwell and at Southern and Early Maxwell. Single-day tickets purchased in advance, $7; $8 at the gate.
People's Choice ticket, which includes five samples to taste and rate, are $5; children 6 and younger, free.
There will be a free shuttle service from five MATA stops on Second Street. For more information, including on public parking, go to memphisinmay.org.
Gates open to public at 11 a.m., free admission from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.
5:30 p.m. -- Opening ceremonies.
6 p.m. -- Ms. Piggie Idol Contest.
8 p.m. -- Awards (Piggy Idol, Best Booth, Best T-Shirt).
8:30 p.m. -- Music by Pam and Terry, high-energy rock, country, pop.
Gates open to public at 11 a.m., free admission from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
12:30 p.m. -- ancillary judging
5 p.m -- Cold Hard Cash Show, variety show with comedy and music
6:30 p.m. -- Awards (Cole Slaw, Anything But, Baked Beans, Hot Wings, Sauce).
7:30 p.m. -- Music by Tonic.
Gates open to public at 10 a.m.
11 a.m. -- Barbecue competition judging.
6:30 p.m. -- Barbecue competition awards.
8 p.m. -- Music by Clarence Carter.
State of Q
Check out StateofQ.com, our barbecue website with information and insider tips about barbecue joints and menus, festivals competitions and recipes. Also, see reports from this year's MIM competition. StateofQ.com spotlights people and places, has maps for locating barbecue restaurants, and reviews and ratings. See photo galleries from this year's barbecue contest, as well as our coverage over the years.
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