When a meal is more than a meal
We eat to survive, to fuel and strengthen our brains and organs and sinews. Food delivers the nutrients that keep us alive.
We eat for fun. When food tastes sublime, when the individuals to our left and right and across the table are funny and caring and smart, when our stomachs are not only full but ache a bit from laughter, our body tells our brain that it would like to repeat such a meal again, and again, and again.
We also eat — more rarely, perhaps — for inspiration. Maybe it’s the particular location where the meal is taking place — on the summit of a mountain, a tropical beach at sunset, or a holy site. Maybe it’s a particular person with whom we are dining — the Dalai Lama or Dolly Parton. Food and drink have, since the start of time, served as the centerpiece for human inspiration, seeding inventions and sparking revolutions.
For three decades until it closed in 2011, Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q operated at the nexus of utility, enjoyment, and inspiration. The Abilene hole-in-the-wall was, for decades, a lunchtime staple for scores of West Texans. In a town with almost as many barbecue joints as churches, lines at Harold’s were often out the door (especially on Fridays). The meat —from the tender, slow-smoked brisket and ribs to the steaming sausages — was a religious experience. The hot water cornbread and sweet tea was Eucharist. And presiding over each lunchtime service — the minister of meat — was Harold Christian, who died on Sunday at 71.
Harold took over Tobe’s Bar-B-Q, named for his father, in 1981. He would quickly change the name to reflect the new ownership, and over the next thirty years build Harold’s into one of the iconic barbecue meccas in a state saturated with good meat. He did so while changing virtually nothing on the menu, and leaving the interior of the restaurant — “restaurant” is really a generous term — as it had been since Tobe helped open it in 1956.
Harold’s thrived because every two-meat plate or barbecue sandwich was more than quick fuel to get you through the afternoon. It was pure inspiration. The food line was a rare sea of humanity in a town which is still too often defined by racial and socioeconomic segregation. Harold was proud to have inherited Abilene’s first eatery without separate sections for whites and blacks. The crowds and limited space meant you were likely to sit near or with someone from a different background; blacks, Hispanics, cowboys, students, people in suits, and tourists were all convened to break (corn)bread in an establishment that discriminated not. There was even a framed picture on the wall of “the first white boy” to serve as Harold’s pit master.
Then there was Harold, who appeared to approach customer service a bit differently than his father, who “would cuss everybody who came through the door,” Harold’s son, Russell, said this week. Harold would put down the cleaver or tongs and emerge from behind the counter only to shush his happy diners and formally welcome them into his culinary parish, his home. Then he’d sing. It was sometimes boisterous (see the video below), occasionally poignant (“Amazing Grace” or “His eye is on the sparrow” were two Harold standards), and always gospel. When Harold had a stroke in 2011 and shut down the restaurant, he was most sad about not being able to sing to his customers anymore, Russell said.
When hulking Harold opened his mouth and began to bellow his silky baritone, the room would freeze. Forks and knives down. Side conversations paused. All eyes on Harold Christian, his big, gruff voice filling a room not designed for vibrato. But the setting was strangely perfect for the man’s lunchtime arias.
The first time I heard the classic spiritual “His eye is on the sparrow” — I was an undergraduate at one of Abilene’s three universities — Harold was singing it:
Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart feel lonely?
And long for heaven and home.
There was pain behind those words, yet hope. Then, a pitch-perfect crescendo of joy.
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
His eyes brightened as he sang these words, his fist sometimes pumping the air to bring home the point. Despite plenty of reason for to be discouraged — his failed dreams of playing baseball and singing professionally, losing his father as a young man— Harold was happy. You believed him.
I meet a lot of restauranteurs in the work I do. Many of these men and women strive to create a successful establishment by projecting an image of authenticity and tradition. Vintage photographs on dark walls. Exposed beams. Mason jars on tables made of reclaimed cedar. Roots music playing softly through the speakers. Classic, sometimes forgotten menu items.
Harold’s needed none of that to claim authenticity. It just was.
Over the years, Harold Christian easily could have added a patio or second dining room with more seats, or opened a second or a third location. It might have been a financial game-changer, who knows. But scaling up was apparently never a goal for a man who only wanted to make his father (who passed in 1984) proud with consistently great barbecue. All the rest of it was window dressing.
And yet tens of thousands made pilgrimage to that simple cinder block building every year, some driving in from hundreds of miles away. I’ve even heard from two couples this week who passed over the fancy ballrooms and white-table-cloth restaurants to have their wedding rehearsal dinners at Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q. If I personally know two couples who did this, there must be many more out there.
When is a meal more than a meal? When it satisfies both stomach and soul. Harold made inspired barbecue, for sure, but he also made each meal an inspired experience, because when you were in Harold’s joint, Harold was your host — whom you loved, and who loved you right back. His legacy? Well, I’m 2,000 miles away in Boston, writing about a man I never met who made food I craved in a setting that felt right. And I, with scores of others, won’t soon forget that singing voice—gripping, disarming, eternally hopeful.
Why should I feel discouraged?
Harold Don Christian, 1945–2016