You see, Bludso bleeds blue. He’s a Dallas Cowboys fan (the team logo is painted right on his smoker). His affiliation with Washington’s archrival is perhaps not surprising given the Compton, Calif. native spent his childhood summers in Corsicana, Tex., just south of the Big D. Bludso’s father grew up in Corsicana before moving to California at age 12, and the elder’s family still lives in the area. One of those relatives — Bludso’s great aunt, the late Willie Mae Fields, whom he called “granny” — operated something of an underground smokehouse for years. She was the one who taught Bludso how to tend fires, season meat and prepare Texas-style barbecue, low and slow with smoldering splits of post oak.
At age 55, Bludso is now the elder statesman, passing along his own wisdom. During our chat, he touched upon a number of important topics, including the country’s reckoning with racial injustice, his restaurant’s community role and the neglected contributions of Black cooks, particularly in the accounting of American barbecue. Below is a transcript of our talk, edited for length and clarity.
How’s business during the pandemic?
You know, most of the locations are temporarily closed, but the Hollywood location is actually doing real good. We were already kind of set up for the mail order and Postmates and all that, so we’re actually hanging in there, just day by day, by the grace of God. We’re able to keep some people employed. I’ll just be glad when everything gets back to normal. I haven’t been to L.A. since March, since this happened.
Where are you now?
I live in Texas now.
Tell me about the Netflix show. I haven’t seen it yet.
This is the most emotional cooking show, I guarantee, that you ever see. I mean, we had these guys out in the middle of Georgia, 115 degrees outside, and they’re cooking. In most cooking shows, especially barbecue shows, the contestants get to use smokers that they’re familiar with. Here, they had to use different things. We had them cooking like in pioneer days. Every day, it was something else. We had them cooking possum and raccoon and beaver and all kinds of stuff.
Who are the contestants?
It was eight contestants total. They’re from all over the world. You know, L.A., Texas. Some are competition pitmasters, and you had a couple who are housewives. You had this Southern lady who was a pitmastser. She won competitions, and she cooks in her pearls. You had a backyard mom who found out, during the taping of the show, that she was pregnant. We had a big old brother from Jamaica. We had a dude who almost had a stroke out there. It was blood, sweat and tears.
Willie Mae taught you how to smoke meats, which is just another reminder of the contributions that Black men and women have made to American cooking. I was reading recently where Tootsie Tomanetz, the celebrated pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ in Texas, first learned her craft from a Black pitmaster named Orange Holloway. There must have been 1,000 Holloways out there who worked anonymously their entire lives.
Think about it. Who was doing the cooking back in those days? It was a Black person doing the cooking. I’m not saying that they are responsible for all the barbecue because that’s not true. But if you look at some books, you would think Blacks had nothing to do with barbecue in America. I mean, brisket was one cut of meat that they would give to enslaved people. Not everybody was eating that. That was the meat they would disregard. Black cooks took it and made it amazing, and then it became big. But like anything else, they just wrote them out of the stories. But what people don’t understand is a lot of that history, we had people who lived that history. So we know the true story.
Did Willie Mae have a place of her own to sell barbecue?
She had a place, a little place, but it was really illegal. She would set up on the weekends. She also had a juke joint right next to her house, and she would sell barbecue out there, too. Granny could cook anything. but barbecue and soul food was her thing. I mean, when I could finally cook brisket good enough to where she would eat it, it was like … I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the show, “Kung Fu” back in the day? When I finally did it and she loved my brisket, it was like that part where he took the pebble out of his mentor’s hand.
When you still had the shop in Compton, before it closed, it seemed like it was embedded in the community. It wasn’t just a business to make money from folks. What was your approach with that place?
The community has got to be in you, no matter what, and that’s just the way I was raised. It has to be something natural. I try to make this perfectly clear: Compton has some of the best people, like any place else. Sure, it has had its problems, major gang problems and all that. But the majority of people in Compton are good, hard-working people. You know, I’ve done interviews where they want to hear about the funerals that we’ve paid for and the caskets, and that’s fine. But I don’t let them get away with that unless they hear about the scholarships that we’ve paid for and the many, many kids that we’ve helped go to college and the free barbecue for As and Bs on your report card. It was way more of that than it was the other thing.
How different is it being in Hollywood instead of Compton?
It’s totally different. But Hollywood still supports Compton. Big time. We support the mayor. We support a lot of different people. One of my sayings is, “I’m blessed so I give. I don’t give to be blessed.” It’s a big difference.
Did the protests after George Floyd’s death affect how you did business or your activism?
You know, I totally support the protesters. I wasn’t there, but I saw that they had a march. They went through the neighborhood, no problem. Later on, the criminal element came through, and they were tearing up stuff. But out of respect, they stayed away from Bludso’s, which was a blessing right there. Horrible for all the rest of the people. I make that perfectly clear: Protesters and the criminal element are two different things. It’s a tough time right now, but I look at it like this is the test. This is the big test right now. I’m not the most religious person in the world, but this is the test. How are we going to come together after this? We still got a ways to go, but look at the protests. Look how diverse it is. You can’t deny that, and that means it’s a change. You got people out there that are still trying to separate you through ridicule and propaganda and BS. Right now. But as I tell my kids, “Hold tight, hold tight, and maybe in the next 30 or 40 years, racism can be extinct.”
You’re the son of an L.A. police officer. Your father was an officer, and your mother was a Black Panther sympathizer. What do you think of the movement to defund the police?
I think that’s crazy. I just think the police need to get rid of bad police. That’s the whole thing: I think bad police need to be treated as the criminals that they are, and we need to separate the two. One of my main sayings is: People hate the police ’til they need the police. My father was a good cop. His buddies were good cops. There probably wasn’t even 40 Black police officers in LAPD when he started. He went through a lot of stuff to stay strong, to clear the way for other minorities to come through, not just Blacks. He took those lumps in the academy in 1968, which was racist as hell.
Historically, the Los Angeles Police Department had one of the worst reputations for brutality and racism.
My father got pulled over and arrested by someone in LAPD. They didn’t even know he was a cop until he got down to the station. A Black sergeant was on duty. He allowed them to go off duty and fight in the parking lot. My daddy beat the s— out of the dude, the one that arrested him who was still talking crap.
I know you’re working on a book, “The Bludso Family Cookbook.” I heard that it may be one of the first barbecue books written by a Black pitmaster. I started looking into this, and Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, told me that Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, published a barbecue cookbook in the 1980s. But other than that, there’s little else. How can that be?
I think Rodney Scott’s cookbook comes out before mine comes out. I’ll be the second cookbook. I guess I’ll be the third one in the history of barbecue. For years, I wasn’t interested in doing this. They kept saying, “You should do a cookbook. You need a book.” But then to be working with Noah Galuten [a chef and author who’s collaborating with Bludso on the book], and you start telling these stories and you start reading the manuscripts and realize, “Damn, who they talking about?” Then you realize, you actually lived this life.
You’re going to love the cover. It’s a cover like nobody’s ever seen before. I don’t know how you are in rap, but back in the day, Vibe magazine did a cover of Death Row Records with Tupac, Dre, Suge and Snoop. They had on black turtlenecks with the Death Row necklaces. That’s how we’re going to do the “Bludso Family Cookbook.” The cover is going to be like that, with my granny in a turtleneck and all the rest of the Bludso family on the front. Everybody’s going to be in black turtlenecks. Then on the back of the cookbook, it’s going to be future, with our kids in black turtlenecks.
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