What it's really like to be a female BBQ champion - Exclusive

Traditional gender roles aren't just about who stays home with the kids, or who climbs on the ladder to fix the leaky roof. There are stereotypes in the food industry as well — such as that baking is women's work, or that barbecue is a job for a man. Happy to shatter these preconceptions is seven-time world barbecue champion Melissa Cookston, the author of two cookbooks, Smokin' in the Boy's Room and Smokin' Hot in the South. Cookston is especially well-known for her ability to cook a whole hog — a grueling task that's as much of a physical endeavor as it is a culinary challenge.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Cookston, who serves as the judge of the new Netflix cooking competition, American Barbecue Showdown, alongside fellow BBQ legend Kevin Bludso, revealed what it's really like to be the woman who beats all the men at the barbecue game. "I've been cooking on the circuit for 25 years. And when I started out, I didn't really realize that I was the only woman out there," Cookston said. "I just went and did it."

Cookston won competitions because of her barbecue skill — not because of her sex

While the barbecue competition circuit has been a largely estrogen-free zone, Cookston said it was her cooking skills, and not any sort of need to level the playing field, that explains why she took home so many prizes. "I wasn't really ever treated any differently," she said. "I think I was just always kind of respected because they saw me pulling my own rig. They saw me back in the trailer. They saw me juggling the hog, and my husband was always there with me. So, I think it kind of took people awhile to realize, 'Hey, the chick's doing all the work over here.'"

If anything, Cookston said, it's only been the media that's pointed out the fact that she's not a man. "I think that the media has made it out to be [an issue]. They say 'the winningest woman in barbecue,' and I'm like, 'Well, it's not like there's ladies teas in barbecue.' So, I won those world titles against a bunch of men. I think I don't really have as big a deal with it as maybe some other people do," she added.

Melissa Cookston is proud that she's inspired other women barbecuers

While Cookston jumped into the barbecue world without giving her sex a second thought, it has meant a lot to her to hear from other female cooks that she blazed a trail for them. "I will tell you though, it's really special to me when these young girls come up to me and they say, 'Oh, I want to be like you,'" she said. "That warms my heart to see these young ladies that want to barbecue."

In fact, a contestant on American Barbecue Showdown shared this sentiment with Cookston, too. "Tina [Cannon] had reminded me that I had spoken to her at a barbecue contest in Georgia, and that really kind of fueled her desire to actually get in and barbecue full time or at least compete more than she was," she explained. "And that made me feel like I had done something for somebody. And any time that I can do something for somebody and make them want to compete professionally or do what I do, it humbles me. It's not easy. It's not easy to compete professionally." In fact, Cookston said, this moment was one of the more touching moments of the show for her. "It kind of melts me a little, makes me a little ooey-gooey, and I'm not that kind of girl," she confessed.