In honor of our annual ‘Cue Awards we’re going deep into barbecue culture with The Smokin’ Hot List. This new series, in partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance, will share the story of a pitmaster each week. Check back every Monday for your weekly dose of ‘cue.
Pitmasters of the Week: Helen Turner
Where: Helen’s Bar-B-Que, 1016 N Washington Ave, Brownsville, TN 38012 (731/779-3255)
The daughter of a farmer father and a homemaker mother who raised ten children, Helen Turner was born and raised in Brownsville, Tennessee, sixty miles northeast of Memphis. After she and her husband, Reginald, began a family, she initially stayed home with their children. But once they were in school, she was ready to go back to work.
Turner began working in the barbecue business in the early 1980s and returned to the pits in 1996 after several years of factory work. That year, she took over ownership of a barbecue restaurant owned by Dewitt Foster and changed the name to Helen’s Bar-B-Q. From her previous job in the restaurant’s kitchen, preparing barbecue sauce and side dishes, Turner learned her way around the pit.
Since then, Turner has been cooking barbecue six days a week and serving it to scores of loyal customers from Brownsville and beyond. Though her husband often helps her start the fire in the morning, Turner is the undisputed pitmistress of Helen’s Bar-B-Q. Each day she cooks pork shoulders, ribs, bologna, and sausages over oak and hickory coals. She pulls and chops sandwiches to order and douses them with the customer’s choice of a hot or mild tomato-based sauce. The sandwiches are topped with homemade slaw and served alongside potato salad or beans, which Turner also prepares from scratch.
Barbecue is a tough business for anyone, male or female. There is wood to chop, fires to stoke, and coals to shovel. Meat must be prepared for cooking, flipped and taken off the pit at the right time, and kept warm without being allowed to dry out. When the smoke—and there’s plenty of it, billowing out of her screened-in pit room—gets in her eyes, Turner doesn’t let it stop her. She keeps cooking because it’s satisfying work, and because she loves interacting with her customers. Black and white, male and female, they savor her food and respect her craft—and so do we.