Excerpts from Paulette Wooten’s Travel Journal

It’s a rare opportunity to meet a true female pitmaster. So in March, from Nashville to Little Rock, we hopped off I-40, took a short detour, and headed to Brownsville, TN, hoping to meet Ms. Helen and sample some of her famous open-pit barbecue sandwiches. She and her world-renowned BBQ is everything you’d expect. A true rockstar vibe. Waking up early and taking care of red hot BBQ business.

If you were to drive through Brownsville’s downtown area without being aware of Helen’s BBQ’s legacy, you might overlook the modest establishment. There’s nothing showy or sparkly about the place, just one of the country’s most well-known smoking female pitmasters.

We arrive eager to check if Ms. Helen is around. At the counter outside, someone is placing an order. The 6-foot Covid rule is still in effect, so we wait. We glance at the short menu of oak and hickory smokehouse meats and quickly realize that Kim cannot eat anything. Pork makes her sick, and she is a never-Bologna believer. Chicken must be ordered one to two days in advance. I placed my order for a giant pulled pork sandwich and saw Ms. Helen preparing food in the back. I can’t wait to meet her. The CASH ONLY checkout man knows we’re not local and asks where we are from; when we start telling him, Ms. Helen comes over to introduce herself. I request a photo. She graciously accepts the proposal. Indeed a legit bucket list moment for me.

She’s pleasant, down-to-earth, and a bit reserved. Her demeanor is so ambiguous that I can’t tell whether she’s bashful or just intent on returning to work. Over the last 25 years, she’s been running a world-renowned business independently. She provides the most incredible nourishment for the spirit and body to everyone who comes to her. 

Treating all customers as though they were part of the family. She's the real deal.

The order is ready. I eat in the car because we have to get back on the road. I rip open my brown paper bag and take my first bite into the famed sandwich. Immediately transported back to my South Georgia roots. The finely chopped cabbage resembles my mother’s coleslaw recipe, except she used her sweet pickles. It’s a little more vinegar-based than mayo, but it compliments the spicy sauce and smokey meat. The pulled pork is delicious and perfectly cooked. I wished Ms. Helen, and I could have sat down to admire this piece of art together. Next time, perhaps, we can place a chicken order in advance and do a formal interview with the legendary Ms. Helen. I’ll definitely be trying the bologna sandwich.