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Pitmaster Kevin Bludso explains how he learned to barbecue growing up in Compton

The new cookbook by pitmaster Kevin Bludso isn’t just a collection of 90 recipes, it’s a compelling memoir.

“I was born and raised in Compton, California, with a police officer father and a Black Panther-supporter mother,” it begins. “Every summer to stay out of trouble, I went to Corsicana, Texas, to work at my granny’s illegal, bootleg BBQ stand.”

He was 8 years old when he started those trips to Texas, but eventually he was the only one granny trusted to smoke brisket. Granny — Willie Mae Fields — was actually his father’s aunt. His grandmother worked at the Bluebird Café in Dallas, where she was shot by a White woman who mistakenly thought she was having an affair with her husband. The aftermath of that tragedy is why the family moved to Compton.

Fast-forward to Bludso’s life today: The man behind Hollywood’s Bludso’s BBQ has risen to celebrity chef status as a judge on Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown,” a recurring guest on “Bar Rescue,” and he’s made appearances on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” And his “Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul” (Ten Speed Press, $30) came out this spring.

Kevin Bludso shares his family recipes and pitmaster know-how in his new cookbook, "Bludso's BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul." (Ten Speed Press)
Kevin Bludso shares his family recipes and pitmaster know-how in his new cookbook, “Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul.” (Ten Speed Press)

The book isn’t just a primer on how to smoke meats from brisket to leg of lamb, tri-tip and more, it’s also a trove of heirloom family recipes for rib-sticking for appetizers, sauces, sides and desserts to grace the Sunday dinner table. He gives Oysters Rockefeller an Oysters BBQ Fella spin with bacon and cheddar, goes indulgent with Down-Home Mac and Cheese and packs on the flavor with Brisket Baked Beans. And for dessert? Mom’s Blackberry Cobbler.

We had to find out more about the book and ask Bludso how it feels to be riding the wave of America’s barbecue boom.

Q. You have a terrific backstory, so this is more than a cookbook. How did this project come about?

A. I didn’t know how to write a book and I didn’t even know I had a story worth selling. … But you never know until you tell the story. To me, I was just living life. They used to call me the Huckleberry Finn chef because I would go so many different places and do so many different things. I never thought that the story of my life would come out in print.

Q. Tell me about the collaboration with your co-author, Noah Galuten. You had worked together at the restaurant, but this was a little bit different. Who were you writing the book for? I’m guessing grownups, because there’s some cussing in here.

A. Noah just wanted it as real as possible. So after we did recipe testing all day, we would have a Cognac and sit out here on the lake just talking, and me telling a story about good times and bad times. Noah made it so easy. He just always made it like a conversation. And when you’re doing that with somebody you love and respect, it’s not like it’s work. It was like two homeboys just chillin’.

The Bludso's Tray from Bludso's Bar & Que in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 13, 2022 includes 1/2-lb 1/2 chicken, 1/2-lb pulled pork, 1/2-lb rib tips, full rack pork ribs and 2 Texas red hots plus sides (not shown). (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Kevin Bludso and his Bludso’s Bar & Que are known for their smoked ribs, pulled pork, brisket and more.  (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Q. Everybody barbecues. But how many home cooks smoke meat? Is this a growing trend?

A. Everybody wants to be a home pitmaster. It’s at an all-time high.

Q. Some writers are speaking about the barbecue boom in a very scholarly way. In “Black Smoke,” Adrian E. Miller says Blacks created this cuisine, and they shouldn’t get left out. Others say Black pitmasters aren’t getting enough credit, because a lot of it’s about White hipster chefs discovering woodfire cooking. What’s your take?

A. I always say it like this: This is part of our culture, and it’s part of everybody’s culture. There’s enough room for everybody in this. … There’s plenty of arguments about it, but I know for a fact that my granny knew people who cooked on plantations. So I’m still around talking to people who know the true story about barbecue and where it came from. Sometimes, when your history is not being told, you’ve got to demand your history be told.

Q. Miller also writes that there are three kinds of Texas barbecue: Central Texas with the brisket; South Texas with the Latino influence; and East Texas, which is a Southern pit barbecue that comes from an African American tradition. It seems like you do it all — and also add New Orleans, Mexican and Asian flavors. Is there one style you relate to?

A. I like it all. I love Texas, but I put an L.A. influence on it. L.A. and California don’t get their props for barbecue. I say that all the time. … Back in the day, when you had so many people migrating from the South, moving through L.A., we didn’t have just one style of barbecue. We had people from Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and more open up restaurants all along Central Avenue in the ’60s and ’70s. So we had barbecue from everywhere, and then the influence (of) Mexican cooking and Asian cooking and all that. My chicken recipe? I make the seasoning based off Mexican street vendors’ pollo asada. I made my twist off that and just smoke it.

Q. What kind of smoker should a beginner buy?

A. I tell people all the time, get yourself a nice offset smoker for $150 to $200. And learn your smoker. It’s almost like cooking in the oven, once you know how to control it. Anybody can do it. It’s not just a man thing. I taught my daughter when she was 9 or 10.

Q. Some of the book’s recipes use ingredients like Liquid Smoke, Kitchen Bouquet, Lipton Onion Soup Mix and ranch dip mix. That’s the way many people cook at home …

A. Yeah. I like Liquid Smoke. We use it in sauces and stuff like that. When people put it on meat, that’s not what you’re supposed to do. But I don’t mind putting it in some other things or (adding) something like Kitchen Bouquet in your gravy. Those things are must-haves in your kitchen cabinet.

Q. I really loved the cornbread recipe. It’s not sweet but it reads like you’re making a layer cake — enriched cornmeal, stiffly whipped egg whites, butter and two teaspoons of oil. What do those two teaspoons of oil do?

A. It’s mainly for moistness, and it’s a binder too. The top is always shiny, but when you cut into it and that inside is shiny — that’s what I was trying to get.

Q. That is your grandma’s recipe, right?

A. Yes, that is hers.

Q. Do you think there’s a newfound respect for these heritage recipes from the South?

A. Food TV controls everything now, and there are a lot of shows realizing the heritage of this country is pretty incredible. Southern cooking is relaxing and especially now, after the pandemic, people want to get together with family. They wanna barbecue. They wanna have Sunday dinners. And that’s what this book is. This is Sunday dinner all day long.

Source: Orange County Register

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