Kevin Bludso’s barbecue is the most famous thing from Corsicana this side of fruitcake—even though it’s served mostly in California.
The 57-year-old pitmaster was born and raised in Compton, but at a very young age he began spending summers in his father’s hometown of Corsicana, the Texas town southeast of Dallas that is best known for its cheerleading team and its embezzling bakery accountants. It’s where Bludso learned how to smoke meat under the tutelage of his “granny” (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 Granny’s original pit with a Dallas Cowboys star on it. Bludso’s BBQ, which first opened in Compton in 2008, 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 upscale Bludso’s Bar and Que in Hollywood, as well as several other spots.
In 2016, Bludso closed the original Compton location, after plans for what was originally meant to be a renovation—and then a new location—didn’t quite pan out. But this also allowed him to live in Corsicana for the first time as a grown-up, while still occasionally traveling to the restaurants (in addition to Hollywood there are Bludso’s satellites in an L.A. food hall and an Australian casino) and for TV gigs (Netflix’s The American Barbecue Showdown and Paramount Network’s Bar Rescue). He’s enjoying the luxury of no longer working 150 hours a week and of cooking only when he wants to. These days, if he’s up at 5 a.m. and cooking, that means he’s enjoying the Texas sunrise and a view of the Richland-Chambers Reservoir for a pop-up at the Harbor Restaurant, which is owned by friends. 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’d just 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-meat wisdom, including recipes for brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and oxtail, plus two kinds of sauces and all the usual sides. There’s also fried seafood, holiday favorites, and barbecue riffs like smoked oxtails birria (which also requires pig’s feet and pork jowls), smoked pork pho (a recipe by Atlanta pitmaster Rasheed Philips, the winner of American Barbecue Showdown), and Bludso’s personal twist on oysters Rockefeller. The “Oysters Fella” can be smoked or grilled, and there’s also a grilled pork spareribs recipe that can be done in ninety minutes. Bludso says he wanted the book to work as well for a single mother in a little New York City kitchen as it would for a Texas barbecue obsessive with fifteen hours to spare and a large backyard. He’s also a big believer that barbecue can be anything people want it to be.
“As long as you’re kickin’ it over an open flame with a little wood in there, I’m cool with it,” he says. “I mean, I don’t disrespect it, but I don’t take it [too] serious. Some people take barbecue damn near, like, gangbanging, you know? Like they’re gonna start shooting somebody because they use a different-color 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 that we’re out there,” Bludso says. “But it’s still unsettling, ’cause I’m sure that somebody before me has tried to write a book and couldn’t do it. I’m blessed to be in a position to do it and to pay homage to the ones that couldn’t.”
He found writing the book easier than he expected. “I didn’t know somebody comes and just gets you full of Hennessy and gets your life story out of you,” he jokes. “So I might write a couple of books now!” It helped that the “somebody” was Noah Galuten, who is not only Bludso’s restaurant partner but a longtime food journalist and James Beard–nominated cookbook author. “It was his idea to write the book,” Bludso says. “And that was just from us talking and telling stories after a long day of cooking.” In his coauthor’s note, Galuten reveals that it wasn’t all cognac and brisket: there were also early-morning treadmill workouts and “healthful green smoothies” for balance. “There are few better things in the world than cooking food, having a few drinks, and talking s— with Kevin Bludso,” he writes.
Bludso’s been moved by how many people are 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. Granny taught Bludso about business and food, with such classic advice as “the customer’s always right” and “make that plate like you make it for your mother.” By the time Kevin was eleven or twelve years old, he was the only one Granny trusted to make brisket for her. That’s because he’d learned how to make it just as she did.
“Granny used to always say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” Bludso remembers. “[She’d say,] ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with this brisket. Your uncle Payne did this brisket. My dad did this brisket. You do this brisket the same way.’ She’d wait until I get in town and say, ‘Let Kevin smoke me a brisket.’ ”
It took him a lot longer to figure out how to replicate her gravy, a thin, Texas-style dipping sauce built out of brisket drippings. Finally, his uncle clued him in. “My uncle said, ‘Granny’s cooking thirty or forty briskets, fool! You only cooking one brisket. You ain’t getting that much of the juice in there.’ ”
While Bludso’s family tree on his father’s side gets most of the attention, his mother was also Texan, born in New Boston, outside Texarkana. His parents are long divorced, and Bludso’s mother has said she should have known his father was trouble because when they first met as teenagers, in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts, he said he was “ ‘from Dallas, Texas,’ like it was a big deal,” Bludso says. “And he was like, ‘Where are you from?’ And she said, ‘I’m from outside of Texarkana, Texas.’ And then he’s like, ‘I’m from Corsicana!’ He was trying to make himself a big shot out of Dallas, but he knew that he was from the country.”
The baked banana pudding recipe below actually comes from Bludso’s mother. “I’m not really a baker,” he says. “If you look at that whole [dessert] section and see my name on any of them, it’s totally fraudulent.” As Bludso puts it in the book, his mother is a private person, so it was no small thing to acquire the recipe.
“Like getting the damn Watergate notes!” he says. “I mean, my mother . . . those are her babies, because those are from her mom, and her mother was murdered when she was really young. So those recipes—especially her baking—are close to her heart, you know? It was hard, but she did it for me.”
This banana pudding is made from scratch, topped with meringue, and baked to a golden brown, which makes the Nilla wafers extra cakey and the banana extra creamy. It can be served either hot or cold, but the meringue is best right after baking. “I don’t like the way it looks after a day or so,” Bludso says.
Mom’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 degrees.
- Separate the eggs, putting the yolks in a medium bowl and setting the whites aside. Lightly beat the yolks until blended.
- In a 3-quart saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the evaporated milk, 2 cups of the sugar, the flour, and salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is bubbling around the edges and thickly coats the back of the spoon, 25 to 30 minutes. Whisk about ¼ cup or so of the evaporated milk mixture into the beaten egg yolks to temper them, then slowly pour the tempered eggs into the saucepan while whisking constantly. Continue whisking 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 heat-proof 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 up the sides of a 2 ½-quart ovenproof glass bowl or baking dish. Next, peel and slice the bananas and arrange one third of the slices in a layer on top of the wafers on the bottom. Then either spoon or pour one third of the pudding on top of the bananas. Arrange half of the remaining vanilla wafers on top of the pudding layer, then 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 stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, on medium speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until frothy. Increase the speed to medium-high 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 on top of the pudding, taking care to cover it completely.
- The meringue can sit above the rim of the bowl. If you still 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 the 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.