Barbecue is a language of love – it requires time, patience and practice. Whether it’s waking up before the sun to stand in the smoke and grit of the pit or crafting the perfect sides to accompany a melt-in-your-mouth masterpiece, it’s a process that can only be mastered by those passionate about the art of it – and the people they’re feeding.

For 26 years, Helen Turner has been speaking her love language of pulled pork shoulder and ribs to her Brownsville community via her namesake restaurant on North Washington Avenue. Her work is part of a storied food tradition in West Tennessee that attracts folks from around the globe searching for authentic, one-of-a-kind flavor.

Let’s dive into the world of Tennessee barbecue and the achievements of Brownsville’s Queen of ‘Que.

West Tennessee BBQ tradition

West Tennessee sits smack dab at the heart of the country’s Barbecue Belt, the swath of southern states reaching from the Carolinas to Texas known for their masterful takes on the ancient art of grilling good meat. Regional specialties fuel friendly competition – the tangy vinegar and mustard sauces of North and South Carolina face off against the dry rubs and tomato-based sauces of Tennessee and Texas, while pitmasters work their magic on everything from chicken wings to brisket to mutton. The result? A tasty, protein-fueled itinerary for anyone looking to dive deep into southern foodways.

West Tennessee’s barbecue is the stuff of legend – Memphis dry rub spices are a nationally recognized achievement, but local barbecuers don’t limit themselves to one style. In this region you’ll see both whole-hog and pork shoulder, along with “wet” and “dry” approaches to succulent ribs. The common denominator? Tender meat prepared by professionals who skip flashy bells and whistles in favor of classic preparations that enhance the meat’s natural flavors.

Make way for female pitmasters

We see it in summertime commercials, movies, and TV shows – men wielding tongs and sauce brushes, lovingly glazing ribs and other barbecue fare. Despite the fact that women have been the brains behind culinary ingenuity for thousands of years, barbecue has largely been considered the domain of men, especially in a professional capacity. But Turner sits at the forefront of a determined group of women pitmasters who are making big waves in barbecue. “I don’t think barbecue is man’s work, but you know, that’s what men say,” laughs Turner. “I think a woman can do whatever she wants to do, how she wants to do it.”

And this woman knows how she wants to do it – Turner has garnered recognition for her talents around the country. In 2013, the Southern Foodways Alliance crowned her the first-ever Queen of Barbecue, and she’s since been featured in notable publications like USA Today, Food & Wine Magazine, Southern Living, Parade, Eater, and Garden & Gun. Without a doubt, Turner is a certified barbecue celebrity.

The art of the pit

Turner’s pit gets going at five o’clock in the morning, a smoldering oven fueled by the mountain of oak and hickory logs stored behind the restaurant. “A lot of people don’t like cooking with wood and being out here in all that smoke,” says Turner, “In fact, I have kids who don’t even like to do that!”

But it’s precisely this cooking method that gives Turner’s barbecue that undeniable flair. Giant steel smokers are a common sight in today’s barbecue landscape – some are relatively bare-bones while others have electronic features to manage temperature and airflow, helpful for cooking less fatty pieces of meat like brisket. Turner’s method, however, goes back to the early days of barbecue; the direct-heat pit requires constant attention, and the smoke created from the fat dripping on the coals creates a crispy outside and a tender inside for any piece of meat destined for your plate.

Turner’s menu caters to a variety of tastes – pulled pork, pork shoulder, ribs, polish sausage and bologna, plus the obligatory list of tasty sides. Our favorites? Pair the pulled pork with the baked beans and slaw, and don’t forget the spicy homemade sauce to drizzle on, well, everything.

Creating a community with good cookin’

Turner’s restaurant has undoubtedly become an important culinary hub for her community. While her dishes attract people from all over the world – she has a guest book to record all the patronage – her regulars keep her coming back to the pit. When asked about the magic behind her successful business, Turner credits the importance of these relationships. “I’ve got a good attitude with people,” she says. “I treat everybody just like they’re family.”

What’s next for Turner? More barbecue-slingin’ and friend-makin’. “As long as I got my health and strength, I think I’ll be around for a while,” she says.