Food & Drink

Meet the New Queen of Barbecue

Catching up with Brownsville, Tennessee’s Helen Turner about her path to barbecue royalty

Photo: Peden + Munk

Helen Turner in her element.

Last week, pit master Helen Turner, of Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee, boarded a plane for the first time in her life and flew to Charleston, South Carolina, for this year’s Wine + Food Festival.

When we caught up with Turner, she was still wearing her crown—adorned with chicken wire and a bright orange flame—and carrying her coal-shovel scepter.There, the Southern Foodways Alliance crowned her this year’s queen of barbecue—the first ever, following in the footsteps of past kings Rodney Scott, of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, and Sam Jones, of Ayden, North Carolina’s Skylight Inn. As one of the only female pitmasters in the South, and a strict traditionalist who has worked in thick clouds of hardwood smoke since the barbecue pits melted her fans, Turner was already in a class of her own. This weekend’s ceremony only made it official.

How does it feel to be crowned a barbecue queen?

Great. Absolutely wonderful.

When did you find out that you were going to be crowned?

Crowned? Today.

Well, when did you find out that you were a barbecue queen?

I already knew that. [laughs]

I started to figure out that people were paying attention when the Southern Foodways Alliance came to my little hometown to do a documentary on me. I thought it was strange when they called me, but it turned out wonderful.

Do people in Brownsville know that you are a culinary celebrity?

Right now they do. The mayor and everybody, they love it.

Will they have to address you as “Queen Turner” now?

I hope not! [laughs]

Oh, I hope not. I hope they just keep calling me Helen, or Miss Helen. That’s what all of them do, all day long: “Hey, Miss Helen!” or “Miss Helen, fix me this!”

How did you become a pitmaster?

Well, I was working for the previous owners [of the restaurant] part-time for a while. Then I went and took a job at a factory in Covington, making vertical blinds for windows. I was doing that when a guy named Dewitt Foster, who’d bought the business, called me and asked if I’d come back as a partner. He didn’t know how to make the barbecue sauce. He was maybe 80-something years old, and after a while he ended up giving the place to me.

Did you ever think, growing up, that you’d be cooking barbecue for a living?

No, I did not. Not at all! I had no idea.

And you’re one of the only female pitmasters in the South. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know why that is. I’ve got a daughter, right, and she’s not even interested in it. I guess there are very few women that want to work in smoke and fire. I’m up for it because I enjoy it. Plus, I’m a people person. There’s not anybody who’s a stranger to me.

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

During the week, I start early, about seven in the morning. I work from seven until about eight o’clock at night. Most of the time, I don’t even have time to eat until I get home. If I try to start eating at work, I always end up having to quit and start helping people. I always get me a cup of coffee in the morning, and that keeps me going.

Has your clientele changed at all since you’ve begun to attract more national attention?

Yes, I’ve had a lot of people from all over lately. In fact, I just had a busload from China. They said they were on the barbecue trail. The strangest thing about it—well, one, they didn’t really speak English. But they had stopped somewhere and gotten a couple of watermelons, and they all were standing up there eating and just threw the watermelon on the table to break it. Juice went everywhere. So that was kind of interesting.

Anything else you want to share with us?

I love my husband. That’s important. I’ve got to have that in there.

How does he feel about all of this?

He’s enjoying every minute of it.