Helen Turner; Pitmaster of Her Domain
Words: Theresa Stanley & Photos: Sarah Jane Sanders
Helen Turner is living a classic love story of fairytale proportions. Boy sees girl, girl marries boy, they raise a family, she creates a highly praised business with gender-bending professional accolades and they live happily ever after.
One must not judge this book by its cover. Because through the thick soot of the smokehouse, the tall stacks of freshly chopped firewood out back, the basic kitchen set-up and the humble dining area, Helen Turner truly has it all.
Six days a week, 52 weeks a year, before daylight breaks, Reginald Turner, Helen’s husband of three decades, pulls into the parking lot of an unassuming baby blue vinyl-sided building on the outskirts of downtown Brownsville, Tennessee and builds a fire in the smokehouse of his wife’s restaurant, Helen’s BBQ, as he has done each morning for 17 years. "Helen is the gift in my life." Reginald beams when talking about Helen, his broad frame tempered with a gentle voice and warm smile. The pride, love and adoration he has for her is something Hallmark cards are written about. He might have been won over by Helen’s beauty, but, for Helen, it was Reginald’s gospel and jazz melodies that made her melt. To this day, he serenades her often and continues to ‘light her fire’ both literally and figuratively, they playfully say. On this particular day his soulful, resonate voice fills Helen’s tiny kitchen with “Amazing Grace” as she works quietly, preparing pounds of coleslaw, potato salad, barbeque sauce and meat for the flurry of business ahead.
"Can't no woman cook a BBQ" is Helen’s favorite myth to bust. In fact, she has accomplished that several times over and is seen as the finest pitmaster in the South, not just by her adoring husband but by a nation of barbeque fans. Those lucky enough to pass through Brownsville and grab a meal at Miss Helen’s quickly learn that the secret to this award-winning Memphis style BBQ is actually Helen Turner herself, who was initially hired by Dewitt Foster in the mid ‘90s to make sauce for his barbeque stand and serve the customers. By 1996, Mr. Foster was ready to retire and handed the keys of the restaurant to Helen, without either of them knowing that he was giving her the key to open more doors of opportunity than anyone could have imagined was possible in this pastoral Tennessee town.
At first, encouragement and support in the community came from unlikely patrons. Folks who should have been supporters were naysayers. The unlikeliest customers became fans and supporters. As business prevailed, the naysayers returned and Miss Helen welcomed them with open arms to her table. Every sandwich and BBQ plate that passes through the ordering window is made by Helen. Customers will have it no other way. Each is particular to the way she pulls, chops, and wraps their sandwich, many of whom come daily.
Helen credits much of her success to simply following her instincts. She has confidence in her skills and knows what she wants to take on in terms of growth. There have been offers over the years. Many offers. Offers to partner, to expand, to franchise and to grow. But Helen turned down each one. She's a self-described independent business owner and her system is perfect for her life, for her family, for her town and now for the country. In 2012, Helen’s BBQ made Southern Living’s “Smokin’ Hot List” as well as a coronation at the prestigious Charleston Food & Wine Festival. Last year also brought with it a documentary about Ms. Helen by Joe York for the Southern Foodways Alliance titled "Pride & Joy." And this year she will be awarded “King of Pig” award, although the title, this year, will be deemed “Queen of Pig.” Very apropos for a pitmaster who is now myth-busting on the grandest scale.
Secret to her sauce? Never. Secrets to success? That’s easier to come by from this wise and honest, hardworking woman. "I came from raising a family into a business I did not think I would be doing. You don't have to have a college degree. You can do anything you want to do. You just have to have the mind, the heart and patience. There’s nothing you can't do when you put your mind to it." These moments of candidness, along with the mouthwatering comfort food, are what bring patrons through her door and keep them waiting in long lines year after year.
The town motto, "It's a good place to live,” resonates with Helen, who has, over the years, inadvertently established her restaurant as a community treasure. "I treat this place just like home. I look forward to coming in every morning and I treat my customers like family."
Just recently, Reginald and Helen hosted a large dinner for their most loyal customers. No detail or southern delicacy was spared. That night, for the Turners, was a chance to walk down memory lane with those that have walked it with them. “We love this town and we love our lives here. If I had to do it all over again, I would rather it be just as it is right now."