Kevin Bludso’s barbecue is the most famous from Corsicana this side of fruitcake, even though it’s usually served in California.
The 57-year-old pitmaster was born and raised in Compton, but at a very young age began spending summers in Corsicana, his father’s hometown, the Texas town southeast of Dallas that is best known for its cheerleading team. And his embezzlement of bakery accountants† It’s where Bludso learned how to smoke meat under the tutelage of his “grandma” (actually his great-aunt), Willie Mae Fields. Years later — after playing football at Bishop College in Dallas and spending thirteen years as a corrections officer in California — he rekindled his passion for barbecue, eventually using Grandma’s original pit with a Dallas Cowboys star on it. First opened in Compton in 2008, Bludso’s BBQ was hailed by Daniel Vaughn as “the best brisket I’ve eaten in California” and was also a favorite of the late Los Angeles-based critic. Jonathan Gold† In 2013, Bludso followed it up with the more luxurious Bludso’s Bar en Que in Hollywood, as well as several other places.
In 2016, Bludso closed its original Compton location, after plans for what was originally intended to be a renovation — and then a new location — didn’t quite pan out. But it also allowed him to live in Corsicana for the first time as an adult, while still occasionally traveling to the restaurants (in addition to Hollywood, there are Bludso’s satellites in an LA food hall and an Australian casino) and for TV appearances (Netflix’s The American Barbecue Showdown and Paramount Networks bar rescue† He enjoys the luxury of not working 150 hours a week and cooking only when he wants to. These days, cooking dinner at 5 a.m. means enjoying the Texas sunrise and a view of Richland-Chambers Reservoir before popping up at the Friends-owned Harbor Restaurant. Bludso jokes that his new role model is Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ, except, “I don’t even want to be once a week,” he says. “I would only be once a month!”
And now, just in time for summer, he’s released his first cookbook, Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul (Ten Speed Press). It includes all of Bludso’s smoked meats, including brisket, ribs, pulled pork and oxtail recipes, plus two types of sauces and all the usual side dishes. There’s also fried seafood, holiday favorites and barbecue riffs like smoked oxtail birria (which also requires pork feet and pork belly), smoked pork pho (a recipe from Atlanta pit master Rasheed Philipsthe winner of American Barbecue Showdown), and Bludso’s personal spin on Rockefeller oysters. The “Oysters Fella” can be smoked or grilled, and there is also a grilled spare ribs recipe that is ready in 90 minutes. Bludso says he wanted the book to work just as well for a single mom in a small kitchen in New York City as it does for a Texas barbecue obsessive 15 hours to spare and a large backyard. He is also convinced that barbecue can be anything people want.
“As long as you kick it over an open flame with a little wood in it, I’m fine with it,” he says. “I mean I don’t respect it, but I don’t take it” [too] Real. Some people take barbecue damn close like gangbanging, you know? Like they’re going to shoot someone for using a different color of sauce or something!”
Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook is also one of the few barbecue cookbooks written by a Black pitmaster (as he and Vaughn discussed in 2021). “It’s a good feeling to be there,” says Bludso. “But it’s still troubling because I’m sure someone tried to write a book for me and it didn’t work out. I’m blessed to be in a position to do it, and to pay tribute to those who couldn’t.”
He found writing the book easier than he expected. “I didn’t know someone comes and just gets you full of Hennessy and takes your life story out of you,” he jokes. “So I could write a few books now!” It helped that the “someone” was Noah Galuten, who is not only Bludso’s restaurant partner, but long-time food journalist and James Beard-nominated cookbook author. “It was his idea to write the book,” Bludso says. “And that was just of us talking and telling stories after a long day of cooking.” In his coauthor’s note, Galuten reveals it wasn’t all brandy and brisket: There were also early morning workouts on the treadmill and “healthy green smoothies” for balance. †[T]there are few better things in the world than cooking dinner, having a few drinks and talking to Kevin Bludso,” he writes.
Bludso is moved by the number of people interested in his family history. The story of Willie Mae’s life and work (both legal and otherwise, as her weekend barbecue juke joint was also more or less a speakeasy) is told in full here. Grandma taught Bludso about business and food, with classic advice like “the customer is always right” and “make that plate like you’re making it for your mom.” By the time Kevin was eleven or twelve years old, he was the only one Grandma trusted to make breasts for her. That was because he had learned to make it just like them.
“Grandma always said if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Bludso recalls. †[She’d say,] “There’s nothing wrong with this brisket. Your Uncle Payne did this brisket. My father did this brisket. You do this brisket the same way.’ She’d wait until I’m in town and say, ‘Let Kevin smoke a breast for me.’”
It took him much longer to figure out how to replicate her gravy, a thin Texas-style dipping sauce made up of brisket drops. Finally his uncle urged him on. ‘My uncle said, ‘Grandma cooks thirty or forty briquettes, fool! You only cook one brisket. You don’t get that much juice in there.’”
While Bludso’s family tree gets most of the attention on his father’s side, his mother was also Texan, born in New Boston, outside of Texarkana. His parents have long since divorced and Bludso’s mother has said she should have known his father was in trouble because when they first met as teenagers, in the Watts neighborhood of LA, he said he was “”from Dallas, Texas.” ‘ came, like it was a big deal,” says Bludso. “And he said, ‘Where are you from,’ and she said, ‘I’m from outside Texarkana, Texas.’ And then he says, ‘I’m from Corsicana!’ He was trying to make a big shot out of Dallas, but he knew he was out of the country.”
The baked banana pudding recipe below actually comes from Bludso’s mom. “I’m not really a baker,” he says. “If you look at that whole thing [dessert] section and see my name on any of them, it is totally fraudulent.” As Bludso describes her in the book, his mother is a private person, so getting the recipe was no small feat.
“Like getting the damn Watergate notes!” he says. “I mean, my mother. † † those are her babies, because they belong to her mother, and her mother was murdered when she was very young. So those recipes – especially her bakes – are close to her heart, you know? It was hard, but she did it for me.”
This banana pudding is made from scratch, covered in meringue and baked until golden brown, making the Nilla wafers extra cakey and the banana extra creamy. It can be served hot or cold, but the meringue is best right after baking. “I don’t like how it looks after a day or so,” says Bludso.
Mama’s Baked Banana Pudding
Serves 8 to 10
2 12-ounce cans evaporated milk
2 ¼ cups granulated sugar, divided
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 14-ounce box vanilla wafers
5 or 6 large, ripe bananas
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Separate the eggs, place the yolks in a medium bowl and set the whites aside. Beat the yolks lightly until blended.
- In a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, combine the evaporated milk, 2 cups sugar, the flour and salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is bubbling around the edges and the back of the spoon, 25 to 30 minutes. Whisk about ¼ cup of the evaporated milk mixture into the beaten egg yolks to temper them, then slowly pour the tempered eggs into the pan while whisking constantly. Continue beating until fully incorporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla extract until the butter melts. Transfer the pudding to a heatproof bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing directly against the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.
- Place a layer of vanilla wafers along the bottom and sides of a 2 liter ovenproof glass bowl or baking dish. Then peel and slice the bananas and layer a third of the slices on the waffles on the bottom. Then spoon or pour a third of the pudding onto the bananas. Place half of the remaining vanilla wafers on the pudding layer, top with half of the remaining banana slices, followed by half of the remaining pudding. Repeat the layers one more time. Set aside in the refrigerator.
- In a food processor with a whisk or in a large bowl with a hand mixer on medium speed, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Increase speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form. Then slowly add the remaining ¼ cup sugar, a little at a time, and beat until you have a very stiff meringue.
- Spread the meringue over the pudding making sure it is completely covered.
- The meringue may sit above the rim of the bowl. If you have some banana slices, you can garnish the meringue with them.
- Bake the pudding until the meringue is just golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Serve the pudding warm, or let cool completely, cover, refrigerate and serve chilled. Leftover pudding will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Reprinted with permission from Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul. Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Bludso. Photography Copyright © 2022 by Eric Wolfinger. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.