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Hot-smokin’ mama

Forget the flowers and demure bonbons – barbecue-loving moms prefer ribs.

Tread carefully with the Mother’s Day preconceptions – not every mom wants delicate bonbons on her designated day. If she’s anything like Elisa Caplan, she’d like a hunk of smoked brisket and a good slab of icebox pie.

Caplan, hot sauce queen, discovered her true self in barbecue.

Lithe and graceful, she’s not the presence a die-hard ‘cue fan might expect to emerge veiled in smoke from a meat pit. She’s a former dancer who once held Broadway aspirations, a Jewish girl from Brooklyn whose first brush with the glories of barbecue came while driving down through the Carolinas on her way to visit her parents in Florida. So, no, she’s no beefy pit master.

But Caplan, who has spent more than 30 years in the ‘cue business, long ago earned her nickname, “Mrs. Smokeys.” It’s the name that graces her family-owned, Lake Park eatery, where Caplan is known for her hot-smoked meats, and spicy blends of fresh-made sauces.

Today, she’s firmly entrenched in a culinary reality that stretches beyond barbecue: meat-smoking, spit-roasting, grease-spattering, fish-gutting, slab-o-beef carving – these are all skills that can be performed, A) in heels, and B) in hot red polish.

On the national barbecue circuit, women are now smoldering up the scene. Take Mississippi-based champ Melissa Cookston, a mom, restaurateur and the winningest woman in American barbecue – her newly released cookbook is a ‘cue manifesto of sorts.

The book, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” ($22.99, Andrews McMeel Publishing), chronicles her Memphis barbecue and Southern Delta cooking inspirations, the aromatic rubs, sauces, meat injections and smoking techniques that earned her two Grand Champion titles at the prestigious Memphis in May competition and three top prizes of the World Hog Championship.

What was her inspiration to make Memphis-style barbecue her chosen culinary path? Her mom’s ‘cue cravings, she writes. “When I was younger, I remember my mother getting a craving for ribs, bundling us up in the car, and driving two hours to a famous Memphis restaurant just to eat ribs,” she writes. “At the time, I thought it was absolutely crazy to drive hours each way just to eat ribs, but now I get it.”

On the local scene, Elisa Caplan went crazy for ‘cue long before the Southern-hip culinary wave. It was in 1979, after one of her road trips to Florida, that she returned to New York City with a big idea: Let’s open a barbecue restaurant.

“I was young and I was, like, ‘Ah! I can do that!’” Caplan recalls. She bought a Weber grill, set it up on her terrace and practiced smoking meats and making sauce. “I went through so many recipes, just practicing, practicing, practicing.”

When she felt she was ready, she and her then-husband opened Smokey’s, a cafeteria-style barbecue on Ninth Avenue at 24th Street in New York City. She’ll never forget the date: Aug. 20, 1979.

“I had no cooking experience, no management experience. But we decided we would try. And it was amazing – people were lined up around the block,” she says.

It meant ditching her Broadway dreams. But she certainly perfected the sauce – a sauce that would come to earn big raves from famous fans. Former New York Times dining critic Mimi Sheraton, who wrote several times about the ‘cue joint in the early 1980s, concluded that this hot sauce “turns ordinary mortals into ignivomous dragons.”

“With a sauce like that,” wrote Sheraton, “even Kleenex would be edible.”

On Caplan’s heat-measuring Scoville scale, the sauce might be called “medium,” but it’s hot. What’s in this sauce? Caplan will only say it’s a “blend of dried peppers” that gives it its heat, that the sauce is made with fresh ingredients such as onions and garlic, and that it’s gluten-free. A cowgirl’s entitled to her culinary secrets.

After initial doubts, a few crying spells in the back alley and a nonstop grind to keep up with customer demand, Caplan says she had a most amazing realization: “All of a sudden, I just found myself. I found my calling. I was happy. I loved it. I loved the interaction with the people, the fact that we had an open kitchen and people could see us cook. I was happy.”

Much has happened between then and now. Caplan’s New York restaurant expanded to a second location before she closed the restaurants and moved to Florida in 1989 to be with her mother in the wake of her father’s death. She opened a Mrs. Smokeys location near Sawgrass Mills mall in 1996, but after a strong initial run, it struggled in the early 2000s and closed in 2005. A second, short-lived location stood on Northlake Boulevard from 2003 to 2004.

Caplan opened the current Lake Park eatery in 2011. “I felt lost. I just missed being Mrs. Smokeys,” she says.

Now, 35 years after her first restaurant opened in New York and you’ll find her working alongside her chef husband of a few years, Scott Howie, who earned his ‘cue chops in Tennessee. (He smokes the restaurant’s meats each night and makes a mean batch of collard greens.)

Chances are one of Caplan’s three young adult children are working with them as well.

Caplan’s children – Rachel, Rebecca and Ryan – grew up in the barbecue business. Now her daughters operate their own businesses, Rachel in kitchen design and Rebecca in makeup artistry, and her son is in college. A new addition to the barbecue-loving family arrived less than 10 weeks ago when Rachel gave birth to baby Rhett.

“It’s truly a family thing,” Caplan says of her restaurant, where it’s not unusual to find a country or blues band playing on the outdoor parking area. (They wouldn’t fit in the tiny restaurant space.)

At the restaurant, the family concept extends beyond her immediate clan.

“I feel like this is my home and people are coming to my house for dinner,” says Caplan, who works six days a week, open to close. “It’s been the best location, with the nicest, nicest people around here. When people come in and they love the food, that’s your reward right there.”

The following recipes are adapted from “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue,” by Melissa Cookston (Andrews McMeel Publishing).


“When cooking briskets for competition, we aim for a few different attributes than when cooking at home. Contests can be decided by .01, so we focus on perfect texture, appearance, and a rich flavor but one that doesn’t offend anyone (too sweet, too salty, etc.). This is the recipe we used to win the brisket category in the Kingsford Invitational,” writes barbecue champ Melissa Cookston.

Makes 4 to 5 pounds

1 (14- to 16-pound) whole prime-grade or Wagyu beef brisket

6 cups Beef Competition Injection (see note)

¼ cup seasoned salt

¼ cup Ultimate BBQ Rub (see recipe)

2 tablespoons finely ground black pepper

¼ cup yellow mustard

1. Place the brisket on a cutting board fat side up. Trim the fat to an even layer (without cutting into the meat), then turn over and trim all fat pockets and sinew from the top of the meat.

2. Place the brisket in a large aluminum pan and inject approximately 2 cups of the beef injection in a checkerboard pattern. Go slowly or the injection will run down the grain and shoot out the sides! Cover and chill for at least 4 hours.

3. Prepare a smoker to cook at 275°F. For competition brisket, I like to use cherry wood, as it will make a beautiful smoke ring at the top of the brisket. I use 4 to 6 chunks of wood and replenish as necessary for the first 6 hours of cooking.

4. Sprinkle the top of the brisket with 2 tablespoons of salt, 2 tablespoons of rub, and 1 tablespoon of pepper. Spread on approximately 2 tablespoons of the mustard and lightly massage into the meat. Place the brisket in the smoker meat side up and cook for 4 hours. The meat should register approximately 160°F on a meat thermometer.

5. Remove from the smoker and place on 2 sheets of aluminum foil arranged in a crisscross pattern.

6. Repeat the seasoning and mustard process, pour in approximately ½ cup of the remaining beef injection, wrap tightly, and return to the smoker. Cook until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 202°F and the probe slides in easily, 3½ to 4 hours. Remove from the smoker, open the foil, and allow to vent for 5 minutes before placing in an empty cooler or Cambro for at least 1 hour.

7. Heat the remaining 3½ cups of beef injection and pour into a serving pan. Place the brisket on a cutting board. Slice across the grain and check the taste and tenderness. If the tenderness is right, cut into slices approximately the width of a No. 2 pencil, or slightly thinner if the brisket is a little tough. Place the slices into the warm injection and allow to soak for 30 seconds. Remove and serve. Lightly glaze with barbecue sauce, if desired.

NOTE: To make the Beef Competition Injection, heat 2 quarts beef stock to a simmer, and whisk in 1/2 cup Worcestershire, 1/3 cup Ultimate BBQ Rub*, 2 tablespoons granulated garlic and 2 teaspoons onion powder.


*Ultimate BBQ Rub

Makes about 6 1/2 cups

1 cup turbinado sugar

5 cups Basic BBQ Rub (see note)

1/4 cup light chili powder

1/4 cup granulated garlic

1 teaspoon cayenne

Grind turbinado sugar to a fine powder. Add rub, chili powder, garlic and cayenne and stir well.

NOTE: For Basic BBQ Rub, combine well 1 cup turbinado sugar (fine-ground in a grinder), 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 2 tablespoons granulated garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons dry mustard, 1/4 cup light chili powder, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons paprika. Store unused portion in airtight container for up to 1 month.


Serves 4

4 ears sweet corn in the husk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons Fajita Seasoning

Pull back the corn husk slightly and remove the silk. Replace the husk and soak the corn in cold water for 20 minutes. This will help steam the corn as it cooks.

Prepare a medium-hot grill. In a small bowl, mix the butter, cilantro, and lime juice. Remove the corn from the water and shake off excess. Pull the husks back (don’t remove), brush the corn with the butter mixture, and season lightly with the fajita seasoning. Fold the husks back over the corn.

Place the corn on the grill and cook for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally. As the husk burns away, you will be able to see the outline of the kernels. That is a sign that that side is done. Remove the corn, remove the husks, and enjoy!


Serves 4

4 peaches

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cayenne

Whipped cream for serving

Prepare a hot grill.

Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits.

In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, vanilla, and cayenne. Place the peach halves in a baking dish cut side up and spoon the sugar mixture over the peaches. Allow to sit for 20 minutes or until the sugar dissolves.

Place the peaches on the grill skin side down and cook for about 3 minutes or until they develop some char and the sugar is slightly set.

Turn over and grill for 1 minute, then quarter turn them to develop a nice diamond-shaped grill mark. Remove, place on serving plates, and serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

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