BBQ Queen, Helen Turner, Shares Her Secret: She Never Uses A Grill

Helen Turner tends to her barbecue pit at her restaurant in Tennessee. (Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance via  …Earlier in March, Helen Turner was named "Reigning Queen of Pig and Smoke" by the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Charleston Food + Wine Festival -- the first time that a woman has ever taken the title. Turner, owner and pitmaster of Helen's Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee, is a meat cooking legend and one of the only female pitmasters in the United States, Turner cooks up authentic flavor by slow-smoking pork shoulders and ribs in a pit lined with coals so hot that they melted the fans she installed to blow the heavy hardwood smoke away.

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"It does get in my eyes," she told Yahoo! Shine in an interview on Tuesday. "I have to go to the doctor every once in a while to get some drops for smoke being in my eyes. But I like it."

That's one reason Turner's a pure pitmaster. Another reason: she'd rather cook in a hole in the ground than on a grill. 

"I've never used a grill at home," she says. She won't have it in her restaurant either.

What she uses at Helen's Bar-B-Q is simple: Instead of a grill or an industrial smoker, she has a screened-in room with a huge pit in the ground. Two of them, actually -- one pit in which she burns hardwood down to glowing coals, and another into which she shovels the coals and cooks the meat.

"You have to use a lot of wood!" she told Yahoo! Shine. And you have to be patient. "It takes about 12 hours to cook a [pork] shoulder."

"Sometimes you can get by with 10 hours," she adds, in a tone that makes it clear that 10 hours on the coals isn't really good enough.

Dry rubs and marinades may make a difference at home, but at her restaurant, Turner doesn't put anything on the meat before it goes into the pit. It's up to the diner if he or she wants to slather sauce on afterwards; Turner is certain that the hours spent in heavy smoke is the key to her food's amazing flavor.

"Well, me, I think it's the smoke," she explains. "I get a lot of people who don't eat the sauce on the barbecue because it takes away from the smoke flavor."

Becoming one of the top pitmasters in the country wasn't a problem, even though few women take the job. "I worked for the previous owners [of the restaurant] and everybody already knew me, so it wasn't hard," the 58-year-old grandmother expert says. "The only hard part is the smoke!"

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Still, she wasn't expecting to be crowned Queen. She boarded a plane for the first time in her life to accept the award, which was given out at the Wine+Food Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.

"I was surprised!" she told Yahoo! Shine. "I was really surprised. It was just amazing, because I wasn't looking for it."

The award has plenty of people wondering what Turner's smokey secret is, but when asked by Yahoo! Shine whether cooks can make authentic, smokey Bar-B-Que at home, Turner hedges.

"Sure, it's possible," she says slowly. Then, a confession: "I don't cook when I'm not in the restaurant."

"There's just me and my husband at home, and we just grab us a bite to eat," explains Tuner, who has two kids and seven grandchildren. "Every one or two years I might cook Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner, but not very often."


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