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Helen's Bar B Q

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.
Helens BBQ

Photography and story by Andrew Thomas Lee

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.

See more work from Andrew Thomas Lee

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