It’s hard to envision someone who knows pork better than Melissa Cookston. She’s a seven-time world barbecue champion, owner of famed restaurant Memphis BBQ Company and a celebrity judge on the Netflix original series Barbecue Showdown. She authored two cookbooks, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room and Smokin’ Hot in the South; founded the World Junior BBQ League nonprofit; owns The BBQ Allstars, a superstore that specializes in barbecue supplies and all things outdoors; and was the first woman ever inducted in the BBQ Hall of Fame.
Her barbecue may be cooked low and slow, but Cookston is always on the go. We caught her in a spare moment and asked about how she chooses high-quality pork and what’s important to her when working with a pork provider. She explains why Prairie Fresh® is her top choice for best-in-class shoulders, ribs and loins.
When selecting meat for your restaurant or a competition, how do you spot high-quality pork?
“We cook 4 tons of meat a week at my restaurant, and every customer who walks through the door is a judge. We want to win the grand championship with our customers every day and give them a great experience — the opportunity to eat award-winning barbecue. Whether you’re competing at a barbecue contest, serving customers at a restaurant, or cooking at home with your family, a memorable bite begins with high-quality meat.
Several decades of competition barbecue taught me that you can’t win a competition unless you have well-marbled meat. So intramuscular fat is my No. 1 priority when choosing high-quality pork. I look for intramuscular marbling as opposed to pockets of fat, because that marbling helps your meat maintain moisture and flavor. Quality is a difference you can see.
Big barbecue competitions, such as Memphis in May International Festival or the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, have become events that draw people from all walks of life. Then there’s the popularity of TV shows such as Netflix’s Barbecue Showdown that have brought competitive barbecue to people who have never been to a competition. Because of this, consumers today have more awareness of meat quality and a desire to elevate their meals at home.
Without a doubt, Prairie Fresh USA Prime® is the very best pork I have ever seen in my career. That’s the brand we sell at my retail location, The BBQ Allstars, and it’s the top tier when it comes to marbling, tenderness and flavor.”
What is most important to you when sourcing pork for your restaurant and store?
“Consistency is the name of the game. At my restaurant, we go out of our way to provide consistent quality to our customers. We run multiple loads of ribs every day, so we always have fresh meat coming off the pit. We take the extra steps to provide a consistent product, and I want the same thing from my meat supplier.
Prairie Fresh has a huge commitment to consistency and reliability. They have a unique perspective on how pork should be raised, called the Prairie Fresh Way. In my businesses, you have to be invested in the details. You need to know where your hogs are coming from, how they are raised and what they are eating. All of that carries over to the finished product, whether it’s a pulled pork sandwich or competition ribs. And that’s where Prairie Fresh excels.
They have oversight at every point in the production process to provide better consistency for meat buyers and consumers. With their connected food system, they manage every step from the farms to the processing plants with meticulous detail. I can trust that they care about animal health and well-being, and that matters to consumers. All of that ultimately means a better product on the table and a better experience for my customers.”
We heard you retired from the competitive barbecue circuit this year to focus on a special project. What do you have cooking with the World Junior BBQ League?
“The World Junior BBQ League is an organization that helps young people develop crucial life skills while having fun and cooking some really good food. It’s a youth-oriented project that uses barbecue and cooking to help inspire a new generation of pitmasters. The World Junior BBQ League organizes barbecue bootcamps, cooking workshops, competitions and mentorship opportunities for youth, both in the United States and internationally. We host barbecue contests where these young pitmasters compete for trophies and cash prizes, just like on the big competition circuits.
In October, we’ll have the World Junior BBQ League 2023 Championship in Southaven, Mississippi, where youth from the United States, Guatemala and the Cayman Islands will come to show off their culinary skills and compete for the title. It’s a great barbecue event, but it’s also an opportunity for these teens to develop leadership, strategic planning, time management, emotional focus and team building. It’s exciting to see how these young people are evolving into the next generation of pitmasters.
It’s also exciting to see how the larger barbecue community is getting behind our efforts. That’s another reason I am a big fan of Prairie Fresh — they have a strong commitment to make a difference in the industry and the communities where they operate. For example, Prairie Fresh is sponsoring the World Junior BBQ League 2023 Championships on Oct. 21. In the pork categories, the young competitors will use Prairie Fresh pork butts and spare ribs because that is the best you can get. These teens deserve to cook with the Prairie Fresh products. I am amazed at the level of food they can turn in at these competitions. I’ve seen 14-year-olds competing at the level of world-champion pitmasters, and that gives me the warm and fuzzies because I’m on a mission to take barbecue to the next generation.”
Read more about Melissa at MelissaCookston.com. To support the World Junior BBQ League, go to worldjrbbqleague.com. To learn how Prairie Fresh can give your meat case customers a competition cook at home, go to PrairieFresh.com.