Kevin Bludso, 46, had a stressful year starting a fancy new Texas barbecue joint in Hollywood, Calif., appearing on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” on Memorial Day, and winning a “Steve Harvey Neighborhood Award,” as one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the nation.
So, the chance to kick back and enjoy a couple of weeks in Corsicana, his summertime home, was a welcome change. He definitely isn’t doing any cooking.
But it is a chance for him to visit with his “Granny,” Willie Mae Fields, 92, who taught him to barbecue in the first place.
Every summer from the time he was a small boy, Bludso would be packed off to stay with Granny, who’s actual relationship is that of great aunt. It was a significant change from the inner-city life of Compton, Calif., but it turned out to have hidden blessings, beyond the opportunity for a city kid to experience a more rural life for awhile.
“She was always cooking,” he said. “She was letting me work on the pit at 9 or 10.”
Still, although he learned the skills, he didn’t intend to use them professionally.
“I said ‘I’m going to college, I’m not working in food service,’” Bludso said.
He did attend Bishop College in Dallas, getting a degree in business before returning to California to work as a correctional officer in California prisons for 13 years. On the side, however, he was smoking ribs and briskets for his friends and the occasional catering job.
“It would take me back. I was young. I’d put my blues (music) on and sit out there with the brisket, and it would take me back,” he recalled. “I never dreamed it would get as big as it is.”
After a little persuading, Bludso finally opened his own barbecue stand in Compton, which isn’t the toniest part of Los Angeles. But despite the neighborhood, it attracted a loyal clientele from all over Southern California, serving up tender Texas-style brisket, ribs, homemade sausages and Southern-style sides. Eventually, the accolades began to pour in. Bludso’s won recognition as Los Angeles’ best barbecue restaurant, then the small stand began to make national lists of Top 10 barbecue joints, even pushing out some Texas joints, which makes its namesake chuckle.
“I like that,” he admitted.
This past February, Bludso and some partners opened a West Hollywood barbecue restaurant, with tables and chairs and mint juleps on tap.
“We had a lot of celebrities coming down to Compton. We decided to take it up there,” he explained.
Showing up on the popular television show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” hasn’t hurt matters. Bludso estimates that one appearance, wherein he showed how to make Granny’s rub, his version of Granny’s spicy barbecue sauce, and collard greens, has boosted his business about 40 percent.
As for Granny herself, well, that’s a whole ‘nother history right there. Willie Mae Fields, originally Willie Mae Purdy, went into food preparation here in Corsicana at the tender age of 9 years old, a year after her mother died. She began working for A.V. Parker in his cafe, then moved into running the kitchens in a number of local restaurants, including Parker’s, Vernon’s, V’s, the Holiday Inn, Best Way Inn, and the Pancake House.
“They turned me loose in the kitchen,” she said.
She taught herself how to barbecue, Fields said, then she passed her secrets onto the many kids she helped raise, both in her family and from the neighborhood.
“I’d teach them all how to cook and clean house,” she said. “I thought they were supposed to work like everybody else.”
Fields worked in restaurant kitchens all day, then came home to cook at home for her husband and extended family, sometimes cooking two or three meals at a time, supper dishes already on the stove while she was dishing out breakfast. In her spare time, she’d fish, play bingo and attend rodeo. She was married three times, and they were all great men, she said.
Still opinionated, Fields said she wouldn’t take today’s men. In her day, men knew what they were supposed to do — work and take care of their families, she said.
Although her husbands didn’t want her working, Fields kept her job. She also managed their money. Her husbands brought their paychecks home and she’d give them back enough to buy two packs of cigarettes.
“That’s all they needed,” she said.
Her paychecks went into buying small houses in the neighborhood, which she rented out. She was working for herself, Fields said.
“I just wanted to work,” she said. “They didn’t want me to work, but I knew what I wanted to do.”
She passed along that sense of independence and willingness to work to her great-nephew, Kevin Bludso, now making a name for himself in L.A. restaurant circles.
“She always said ‘You’ve got to put the hours in,’” Bludso recalled. “One thing she did instill in me was a good work ethic.”