The smoke was the first thing I noticed when I entered the dining room.
The haze hung around the room like a 1990s coffee shop — only the smoke wasn’t from nicotine-addicted patrons, but from the barbecue pit.
The room was small; two oak dining tables filled the space, surrounded by two racks full of potato chips and a drink cooler. An older model TV showed some classic technicolor movie, and an AC unit blocked the light coming from the window. The 12 of us customers were all the room could handle.
I tapped the shoulder of the older gentleman standing in front of me, “Have you ordered yet?”
He turned to look at me, likely judging me by my full-face of makeup, sparkly necklace, Sunday-best dress, and shiny flats I was still wearing from my chapel service earlier that morning, and asked, “You on a tight schedule?”
Just then, a woman came bustling out of a door next to me, arms full of food, carrying a cup of barbecue sauce that was inadvertently dripping onto the concrete floor.
“Ma’am, you’re spilling the sauce,” the customer pointed out.
“Shiiiiiit,” Helen said, setting the food on the table, and turning around to reach for a paper towel dispenser that hung from the wall.
Helen’s BarBQ sits on a thoroughfare of Brownsville, Tenn. There’s not much to the gray-sided building; in fact, I nearly pulled into the next-door burger joint, thinking I had arrived.
But the dive had recently been featured in Southern Living Magazine, where owner Helen Turner was celebrated as being a rare female pitmaster in the world of traditional boys club barbecue. (Read more about Helen and other lady pitmasters here.) Each week as I make the trek to Memphis and back for seminary, I travel the outskirts of Brownsville to hit the interstate. I jotted the address down weeks ago on a sticky note and kept it in my planner for a future visit.
Typically, “anywhere but barbecue” will be my reply when you ask where I want to dine. It’s not because I don’t like smoked meats, baked beans, or potato salad. It’s because I’m a snob about my ‘cue. I grew up in Missouri, where Kansas City Style barbecue reigns, with an emphasis on dark, smoky, sweet sauces.
Sauce is so important to my family, my parents keep a barbecue sauce recipe in the lockbox at the bank, and bottle up a batch now and then to drizzle on my dad’s famous grilled hamburger patties. And barbecue is a verb, not a noun, so we barbecue our hamburgers, thankyouverymuch.
Meat then, for me, is simply a vehicle for good sauce.
I’ve eaten barbecue in Kentucky, in North Carolina, in Memphis, and in Texas. Give me KC style any day over your spicy sauce, your mustard-based slather, your rubs, or your mesquite smoke.
But Helen, and the other women featured in the article, seemed like a badass. And badass women working in a man’s world I can support — saucy or not.
At the window to order, I asked what was good. The girl taking my order said it was all good, and that they even had chicken that day.
“Go ahead and give me a pulled pork sandwich,” I said. “I’ll keep it classic.”
“Hot or mild sauce?”
Honestly dreading either option: “Mild.”
“Sure. Do you have potato salad?”
Of course that required a follow up question of my own — white or yellow? Mayonnaise-based potato salad ought to be hung in the trees for bird suet. Bathing boiled potatoes in mayonnaise is not my jam.
“Oh, never mind.”
With that, Helen, who had been gathering up my sandwich, came to the window with a fork full of white potato salad for me to try. She had a sly, knowing smirk on her face.
“Mmmm. Yeah, get me a side of that, too.”
I took my brown bag of barbecue and asked to share the second table with the man who had previously been in front of me in line. “Good choice,” he said. “You can’t eat that in the car.”
Sure enough, my hamburger bun was not only heaping with pillowy pork, but it was overflowing with thin sauce. Looking like a barbecue greenhorn, I used the spoon reserved for my sides, gave the sauce one skeptical glare, and dug into the sandwich.
It was good. Real good.
The sauce, while thin, was tomato based and sweeter than I anticipated. The smoke from the pit added to the flavor. It was solid in zest if not in structure.
My table mate informed me you wouldn’t find much hickory wood in Helen’s fires — he supposed she did her cooking with white oak — because hickory was hard on the innards, he implied. I don’t know why I took so much stock in my new friend’s reasoning, but he was a Brownsville native, and by this point, having successfully navigated the wiles of suspicious sauce and potato salad, I trusted everyone in the facility completely.
We exchanged conversation; me telling about my Memphis travels and goal to be an ordained minister. He told me about his church, and some of its happenings.
I continued to hack away at my sandwich with my spoon, pausing only to dig into the coleslaw or the potato salad.
Helen came out of the kitchen with a black binder filled with notebook paper for the customers at the table next to me. “I ask all my out-of-town customers to sign my book,” she said.
“When you’re done, send it over here,” I told the customer, wiping my face free of sauce.
Two gentleman entered the restaurant, dressed well and looking sheepish. My table mate ushered them in.
“Over here. Order at this window.”
I heard them tell Helen they had heard about the place from its sky-high online reviews.
Framed magazine and newspaper articles dotted the walls. It seems the Southern Living issue where I first discovered Helen was actually her second appearance in the national magazine. Helen had also appeared in Garden and Gun Magazine, as well as others.
“She’s not changed a thing,” my table mate said. “On the weekends, hundreds of pounds of barbecue leave this place. People take it home 5-, 10 pounds at a time.”
I left the joint with my hair having soaked up the wood smoke that filled the room, a full belly, a happy heart, and more than pleased with my detour.
I don’t know why Helen’s BarBQ should ever change.
It it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.