Helen Turner is one of a few female pit masters in the south. People travel from all over the world to the small town of Brownsville, TN to try her barbecue.
I arrive at Helen’s Bar B Q in Brownsville, Tennessee just after an early morning storm. I’m thankful the rain had come early, before we started shooting. Helen Turner pulls up in her white Chevy Suburban, smoking a cigarette and finishing up a call on her bluetooth headset.
I introduce myself, not realizing she was still on the phone. She says “hey” and continues her call while she quickly leads me back to the smokehouse. Still talking on the phone, she starts piling hickory and oak, and then lights the fire to get it going for the day.
Helen’s been doing this for 21 years. It’s her routine: Get there early, light the fire, shovel hickory and oak coals under her 12 to 15 lb pork shoulders, smoke them for over 12 hours or until she feels they’re done. She defies almost everything I thought I knew about barbecue. Helen doesn’t season her meat at all—instead, she lets smoke get on it for 3 to 4 hours before wrapping it in foil. The result is a smoky, juicy flavor that really comes through in the sandwich. You’d never know the meat isn’t seasoned. Helen is also one of the few female pit masters in the South, and the only one I’ve ever met.
Exterior of Helen’s Bar B Q in Brownsville, TN, about an hour outside of Memphis.
Two huge piles of wood sit out back. The left pile is all hickory, and the right side is all oak.
Helen uses a mix of each to get her signature smoke flavor. She grabs a few logs to add to the first fire of the morning.
Helen’s right shoulder has been giving her trouble. “My doctor asked me if I do anything with my right arm a lot more than my left. I told em, “Yeah, I chop barbecue sandwiches every day for last 20 years.” He said I might wanna stop doing that so much. I told em “nah.” Even though she still chops every day, she’s started to let her sister, Linda Davis, help with the chopping, and she lets her brother Mikey Miller put the pork shoulders on the pit. “He ain’t worth a quarter, but he can at least help me with that!”
Helen lets the pork shoulders get 2-3 hours of smoke on them before she wraps them in foil for the remainder of the cook.
The exterior of Helen’s smokehouse behind the restaurant right after she gets the pit going. “You ain’t ever been in a smokehouse like mine,” she warned me when I got there. I told her I had been in my fair share of them and was used to the smoke by now. “Uh huh, we’ll see once I get this going. You’ll be runnin’ out.” She was right. My eyes watered the whole time we were in there. It was the smokiest place I’ve ever been in.