My Smoky Pilgrimage to Helen’s BBQ

Fewer than 10,000 people live in dusty Brownsville, TN. It would be easy to blow right past downtown if you were, say, trying desperately to find anything at all worth listening to on the radio. But even if you did, you still wouldn’t miss the town’s biggest attraction, Helen’s BBQ, which sits a mile removed, on a desolate bend of Old State Road 76.

Helen Turner gets found, though, as her guest book will attest. Perhaps the best known African American woman pitmaster in the US, she’s hosted food pilgrims from Amsterdam and Spain, Great Britain and Australia, Sweden and Paraguay. They come in search of what many insist is the ultimate in Memphis BBQ despite being more than an hour outside of THAT city’s downtown.

The pilgrims come for what the word barbecue means in these parts: chopped, slow-smoked pork shoulder on whitebread buns. Purists stop there, but most will go ahead and order the other two toppings: a tangy sauce based on ketchup and a vinegary slaw that adds crunch and cuts through the fat. 

If they are lucky, the TV food personalities that they’re aping also filmed themselves eating Helen’s smoked bologna, whose concentric circles of crisp-edged brown and juicy pink defy both expectation and adequate description. 

The “out of towners,” as Helen calls them, tell her how they saw her on “Man Fire Food,” or read about her in Southern Living or Garden and Gun. “They say ‘I’m so glad I got to come here,’” Helen says, waving mirrored jazz hands of excitement. “You know I have a lot of fun with that.”

Tourists are amateurs, though, one and done. Some people travel 40 miles here on the regular and make their way from neighboring Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Missouri. One of Helen’s near-daily local customers, whose feedstore hat screams farmer, told me her barbecue is the best in West Tennessee. It would be unseemly to point out how rotund this old boy was except he did so himself, patting his impressively convex coveralls with a satisfied smile. Health food Helen’s barbecue most certainly is not, and that’s before you tack on a bowlful of banana pudding and wash it all down with sweet tea.

***

To take a picture that does justice to Helen’s, you can’t stand out front. (A “building mug,” my photog partners used to call this perfunctory shot, back when newspaper editors underpaid two people to cover stories rather than one.) The building is grey-sided, red-trimmed and asymmetrically shaped, like a barn that got chopped off at the right shoulder. You might mistake it for one selling pizza, or ice cream, or something more banal, were it not for the hand-painted-metal menu nailed to the front. 

Around the back though, it’s all Hephaestus. Black smoke roils through ragged flags of screen, both whipped insistently by the breeze. Inside, a hickory-and-oak bonfire rages orange, spluttering escape-minded sparks whenever Helen transfers coals from the fire pit to her smoker. It’s a parilla-like arrangement of cinderblocks, grate and thin panels of steel that are, by design, not attached. 

With a flat metal shovel Helen slingshots coals onto the dirt floor beneath. Cooling from orange to embers to ash, they’ll spatter with the drippings of a dozen-plus pork shoulders. There’s a limit to how much smoke meat can absorb, and after three hours she will wrap the shoulders in foil, which helps them cook and keeps them moist. These shoulders will cook for twelve hours and be served tomorrow. The ones they’re chopping up inside were smoked yesterday. 

Helen suddenly straightens up, leans on her shovel and announces her secret seasoning for the pork. I’m caught off guard, first because I haven’t asked her that yet, and then again when I learn what it is. “I don’t put nothing on em,” she says. “Not even salt?” I ask, as if the word nothing might have another meaning. “Nope,” she says. “It’s just the smoke.” Some of Helen’s most devoted customers never add sauce, she tells me. They don’t want anything getting between them and their alchemicals: fire and flesh.

•••

How people got to be where they are is of endless fascination to me. Helen started off 23 years ago in an apprenticeship of sorts, first making sandwiches and running the register. She graduated to making the sauce when a second owner took over the place, and then when he (and his wife…later on she says lady?) wanted to retire, he asked her if she wanted to take it over. If she paid the taxes and started paying the rent, he said, the business would be hers.

Helen’s family wasn’t all that encouraging at first, she told me.

“They said, Aw, you ain’t gonna get nowhere with that,” she said, throwing a dismissive wave. “You might as well just let it go.”

She had made such an outsized impression on me in the hour I’d known her that it surprised me people who knew her better and longer could doubt her tenacity.

“I already knew I could make a go with it,” she said, “because I was already doing it by myself. The lady that had it would take the money and I was doing all the work.”Taking over the business meant just one real change, she said. “All I had to add was taking the money.”

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