The most recent barbecue cookbook by a Black author wasn’t published this century. Bobby Seale, a man far better known for cofounding the Black Panther Party than for his barbecue chops, released Barbecue’n with Bobby in 1988. For pitmaster Kevin Bludso, that depressing gap is what makes this moment in barbecue so important. He and coauthor Noah Galuten just submitted the first draft of his manuscript for Bludso’s Family Cookbook, to be released in the spring of 2022. By then, two more barbecue books by Black authors—Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke and Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ by Scott and Lolis Eric Elie—will also have been published. Bludso doesn’t want the momentum to stop. “Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he told me.
Bludso founded the now closed Bludso’s BBQ in Compton, California, in 2008. Today, he co-owns three Bludso’s Bar & Que locations in California and Australia, but he calls Corsicana home. He and I met up at a picnic table outside K & K Bar-B-Que in Corsicana, which Kamar and Kisha Chambers opened last year. Bludso has stopped in a few times to offer encouragement to the young business owners, and I was just happy to be there and to sample the brisket-stuffed baked potato and the pastor sandwich with brisket, sausage, and plenty of barbecue sauce. Bludso has enjoyed restaurant success and the many television appearances it resulted in, but his focus now is passing that knowledge to the next generation of pitmasters through Kingsford’s new Preserve the Pit fellowship program.
“If it wasn’t for people taking time and teaching me, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Bludso says. He learned the craft from his mother and late “granny,” Willie Mae Fields, who sold barbecue out of a juke joint next to her house. She lived in Corsicana, and Bludso would leave Compton every summer to spend it with Granny. Bludso’s brisket still isn’t as good as Granny’s, he says. He also knows not every aspiring pitmaster has a mother or a grandmother to teach them. As a mentor in the fellowship program, he hopes to serve that role.
Kingsford has brought in Bludso as part of a team of six barbecue mentors, which include Rashad Jones in Florida, Bryan Furman in Georgia, Devita Davison in Michigan, Amy Mills in Illinois, and Howard Conyers in Louisiana. The mentors will teach three aspiring pitmasters how to cook barbecue, and importantly, how to run a profitable restaurant. The training will be both virtual and hands-on, and fellows will be required to create a business plan for a future business endeavor.
The barbecue knowledge each of these fellows will receive will certainly be valuable, but it’s also possible to learn the craft from the right restaurant experience. Instead, it’s the grant for restaurant seed money that makes this program truly unique: Kingsford is providing $16,720 to each fellow at the end of the program to “to support their existing or anticipated barbecue business.”
The Preserve the Pit program runs from April through September, and applications are due by March 1. (You don’t need to be in the barbecue business to become a fellow, but you must be at least eighteen years old.) According to Kingsford, applicants will be chosen based on “their connection to barbecue, contributions to the legacy of the Black barbecue community and commitments to fueling its future.” The application includes questions about how aspiring fellows plan to support and contribute to the Black barbecue community once the program is over. Surely, some will be asked back to mentor other fellows in the coming years, because Kingsford is planning for the fellowship to be an annual program. And hopefully the company can offer more than three fellowship positions per year in the future. Kingsford has received more than four hundred applications since Preserve the Pit was announced two weeks ago.
Bludso is looking forward to teaching the fellows how to cook barbecue the old-fashioned way. “If I’m going to do anything with an up-and-coming pitmaster, I’m gonna teach you on a stick burner first,” he said. He also stressed that the business knowledge the mentors can provide is just as important as the cooking, saying “most restaurants fail in the first year, so we’re hoping we took all the hiccups for them.”
He knows firsthand that the talent is out there to create a new generation of successful Black pitmasters. He was particularly impressed with Rasheed Philips, a contestant on The American Barbecue Showdown when Bludso was a judge. “He’s a master seasoner,” Bludso says. But despite his skill, Philips was working a full-time job outside of barbecue when he appeared on the show. Bludso wondered how many more Rasheeds are out there just needing the opportunity for education and a little cash to get started. That’s why Bludso was so impressed with Kingsford’s program. “Kingsford is really doing something. They are really educating people to put more professionals out in the world,” he says. Now it’s up to the applicants to bring life to the fellowship, and Bludso’s advice to them is “Tell your story. Tell it real.”