A former Abilene Christian University director of public relations and grandson of seventh president Dr. Don H. Morris (’24), Don painted a colorful picture of the beloved Abilenian whose restaurant – Harold’s World Famous Bar-B-Q – was a landmark in ACU’s hometown for years.
Christian died April 3, 2016, at age 71.
A memorial service for him will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at King Solomon Baptist Church (1050 Minda Street, Abilene, Texas 79602). Burial will follow in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery. Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Friday at the Northwest Church of Christ (1141 N Willis St., Abilene, Texas 79603), directed by Abilene Funeral Home.
Whack – the meat cleaver crashes onto the greasy wooden chopping block. Whack, whack, whack – today is a bad day to be sausage.
“What y’all gonna have to eat,” growls the big man holding the big knife.
First-time customers of Harold’s Bar-B-Q may be tempted to say, “Whatever you want me to eat, sir.”
Just an arm’s reach away, Harold Christian strikes an intimidating stance. He looks more like a prize fighter staring down his opponent than someone about to serve a meal. Sweat beads on his face, giving it a coal-like smile. The black curls of his hair sneak out from under a read Harold’s baseball cap. He wears a matching red apron with enough brisket fragments stuck to it to make a chopped sandwich.
The soot-covered barbecue pit behind him, which looks like a locomotive fire box, adds to the heat and harshness of the scene. A pile of wood is stacked to the side, waiting to be shoved into the pit’s belly.
Just before the customer fears his life, Harold flashes a saucy grin.
“You want some cornbread,” he asks.
Relieved, the customer takes a down-home plate of barbecue, dripping with dark, mysterious sauce, and finds a seat in cement-block building on the corner of North 13th and Walnut.
The John Henry of a man behind the counter, sweat still on his scowling face from the heat of the pit, turns to the next in line and begins to growl.
“What y’all gonna have to eat?”
Harold Christian, proud owner of Harold’s World Famous Bar-B-Q, is working Friday at lunch; he’s feeding the people.
Two days later and a few blocks away under a small white steeple at North 8th and Treadaway, Harold Christian saunters in with the rest of the choir for the Sunday morning service. He is wearing a crimson and cream robe and a pair of sunglasses. Today he looks less like Sugar Ray Robinson and more like Smokey Robinson.
The whole choir, except Harold, is singing as the procession leads them to the seats behind the pulpit. Out of the group of voices entering the tiny, yet near-empty auditorium, one suddenly booms above the rest. The smooth, deep voice filled the white rock church as a tidal wave would fill a water pail. The voice belongs to Harold.
He sits with the rest of the choir but not for long. The microphone needs adjusting for the first soloist; the soloist needs directing; the choir needs directing; the microphone needs to be adjusted again. Harold spends most of the service in front of the choir, giving directions, shouting encouragement, rhythmically snapping at the piano player for a faster tempo.
With Harold down in front, the choir is singing. “I’ll keep climbing up the mountain. I’ll make it round by round.” The same big hand that gripped the knife is now directing, rhythmically cutting through the air, up and down.
Harold turns to face the congregation for one of his solos and takes a microphone he doesn’t need. From the pews someone should, “I want you to sing it, now.”
Harold complies and fills the little church again with bass. He wipes the sweat from his face and calls for the choir to join him. “Come on choir.” They all are singing now, “I’ll weather the wrath of the storm-tossed sea.”
Harold Christian, proud president of the Mt. Moriah Baptist Choir, is working Sunday morning; he’s feeding the people.
“I like singing in the church because you get more out of it,” says the 45-year-old gospel singer, while taking a break on a slow afternoon at the restaurant. He is sitting on a picnic bench, his huge elbows resting on the white Formica table top, his big hands rubbing smoke-tormented eyes. “It doesn’t feel like you are singing to the rocks outdoors,” he continues. “You’re not just singing to the air or people who just came to see a show. I feel like I’m feeding the people with songs.”
Harold says he enjoys singing more than he does working at his restaurant, but don’t try to tell him that singing isn’t work. “The way I sing it is,” he said. “I sing hard.”
Directing the Mt. Moriah choir is also serious work for Harold. “I’ve been trying to get that choir going,” said the three-year president. “When I came here, all they had was three or four old women. I’m gradually building it up.”
Choirs are no stranger to this man who looks like anything but a choirboy. Twenty-five years ago, at the request of friend Margaret Turnerhill, he joined his first one at the church. “She said, ‘Boy, you’ve got too good a voice not to be singing; you need to get in the choir,’ I joined and have been going ever since.”
Before Mrs. Turnerhill’s influence, young Harold was headed down a different musical path. “I tried my hand at bands, little groups,” he said with a reminiscent gleam. “See, I’m a saxophone player, too.”
After graduating from Abilene’s black Woodson High School in 1963, Harold and some of his former classmates traveled to surrounding towns such as Sweetwater and Stamford to play rock ’n’ roll and blues gigs. “Boop boop, lot of harmony,” he says, describing rock ’n’ roll of the day.
The name of one such traveling band was Big Mac and the Honeydrippers. Although Harold was not big Mac, he said he could drip honey with the best of them.
Often crowded six to a car, the groups would play all night only to arrive home with $3 after paying for supper.
Harold spent time in the early 1970s joining up with various groups who traveled through town in need of a saxophone player. “They needed a horn man; I would play,” he said. It was this freelance period that provided some of the most interesting nights.
“That’s been a long time ago,” Harold said as the memory wheels began to turn. “We went to Loraine [Texas], man, and we played and played. We was playing blues that night. And these old people, they had gotten drunk, were jumping up, throwing things at us. These old women would be grabbing on you, pulling on you, ‘Play boy,’ ” he says, imitating a woman’s voice. “They would come up and grab you and kiss you. I never experienced anything like that before.”
The women, however, were the least of the band’s problems that night. The men in the audience were throwing beer cans. “No glass or anything,” Harold says, qualifying the degree of danger. “Duck ’em and keep playing; that’s part of the gig. We might miss a few notes, but not many. It was during the wintertime, no heat, we had to play with our coats on, and we had to dodge beer cans and women. Played all night and the guy gave us five dollars.”
The pay, or lack of it, was a key in Harold’s decision in 1975 to sing gospel music exclusively.
“I felt like if I was going to play or sing all night with no pay, I might as well do it for the Lord, if there wasn’t going to be any money in it,” he said. “I don’t enjoy that other stuff; I just love to sing gospel music.”
The blues made Harold sad, but gospel music lifts him up.
“That’s the way I’m able to go on,” he says. “Lose your mother or father, but life goes on. Somebody makes me do it. I’m not doing it on my own.”
Harold is referring to God.
“He’s had a lot to do with this thing,” Harold says. “Yip. He’s been real good to us.”
Limiting performances to gospel music has not diminished Harold’s musical opportunities. He has performed for an Abilene taping of the nationwide Bobby Jones Gospel Show from Tennessee. He sang the national anthem at ACU’s only victorious football game in 1990; many fans told Harold he was the reason the team won.
He has sung in the middle of a field for drug awareness, at Abilene’s All-America City banquet, for senior citizens at the Taylor County Coliseum, and in front of the county court house for the troops in the Persian Gulf. He has sung at churches, banquets, weddings and citywide gospel programs.
“I’ve probable forgotten half of the places I’ve sung,” he said. “When I go catering I sing, sing in here all the time, especially during Sing Song and Lectureship; I just get up and sing. I don’t have to have nothing special to sing.”
The singing ability comes from Harold’s mother, Mattie, and her side of the family. The cooking ability clearly comes from his father, Toby, and his side of the family.
From the time Harold was born in the East Texas town of Winnsboro in Wood County, Toby, a railroad cook, sold barbecue form the side of the Christian’s house. Harold’s grandfather ran a cafe in Winnsboro, and he taught the cooking trade to Toby. The Christians later moved to Taylor, near Austin, and sold barbecue there.
In July of 1956, when Harold was 11, the family moved to Abilene because an entrepreneur had set Toby up in the barbecue business. A building was erected, the same one Harold operates in today, and Toby’s Pit Bar-B-Q opened for business.
Five years later, Toby bought the business for himself. Two years later, when Harold was 13, he ran the family business by himself for the first time. Toby announced one morning on his way out the door that he was going on a baseball road trip.
“He’d just walk out and leave me here.” Harold said proudly. Because Harold was such a familiar face behind the counter, he had no problem that first day.
The baseball trip that caused Toby to leave town was one of many. From 1960 until 1984, when he died from complications from a pituitary gland tumor, Toby coached the Abilene sports, a semi-pro baseball team, and traveled throughout Texas to tournaments and games.
Toby’s interest in baseball began as a player at the age of 8 in East Texas. As was the custom, teams were rounded up for big picnic celebrations on the 19th of June. Toby Christian, as his son indicates, was a fine player.
Trophies and team pictures crowd a mantle along the wall of the restaurant. Harold is quick to say the collection of trophies is but a fragment of the many won during Toby’s 24-year coaching career. “We threw a lot of ’em away,” Harold says, indicating his father’s coaching success.
He is also quick with names of the teams’ best players. Harold speaks proudest of Toby’s involvement with a young Abilene pitcher named Bill Gilbreth (’69), ACU baseball coach. “Daddy helped Bill get his start in the pros.”
Toby allowed Gilbreth to play at an early age, giving him added experience.
Gilbreth and the other players on those teams were honorary pallbearers at Toby’s funeral.
Ironically, baseball was a source of conflict for Harold and his father. “I played under him for a while, but I quit. I didn’t last long,” he says.
Like many baseball-coach fathers, Toby was too tough on his own son. “He expected me to do too good,” Harold said. “When I’d make a mistake, he’d jump all over me. I couldn’t take it, so I let him have it, you know. I quit.”
Although Gilbreth’s relationship with Toby was always good, he said Toby did expect a lot from his players, and he was even tougher on Harold.
“Toby would fight for his boys, though,” Gilbreth said. “He’d get thrown out of games.” Once, because he thought his team was being taken advantage of, Toby went and got a gun and confronted the umpire, Gilbreth said.
“He’d protect his guys,” Gilbreth said. One night in Arlington, when Gilbreth was pitching, Toby argued a bad call with the umpire. “If that was a ball,” Toby yelled, “I’m a Chinaman.”
Toby carried this same fighting attitude into the restaurant.
“He didn’t take any slack from the customers either,” Gilbreth said. “And they would love it.”
Although a softer and smoother version, Harold is certainly his father’s son. His gruff sound is as much a part of Harold’s Bar-B-Q as the family sauce that has been passed down.
“I’m not going to cater to anyone,” Harold says.
Black or white, rich or poor, Harold says he calls ’em as he sees ’em. Honoring all men but none too much is a priority.
Despite the attitude, Harold is a lover of people, says his wife, Drucilla. He loves to cut up with them.
“I ain’t ever lost for words,” he says. “And I don’t care about what I say. Some people say, ‘Ooh, I wish I wouldn’t have said that.’ Not me, sometimes it doesn’t come out right, but what is said is said.”
Fortunately for barbecue-lovers in Abilene, Toby’s criticisms affected Harold’s cooking differently than they did his ball playing.
“He was real tough in the barbecue business,” Harold said. “But by him being tough, it made me work that much harder. I was really trying to prove that I could. Even after he died, I still felt like there was some proving to be done.”
Harold took over the restaurant in 1971 when Toby’s health became poor. Harold had been working as a diesel mechanic, overhauling engines. Not only has he continued the tradition of tasty barbecue in the little red building, but the lunch-time crowd that packs Harold’s each week agrees he has improved it.
“Most kids that take the business over from their parents let it go down. But my business hasn’t gone down, I’ve kept the quality of the food up as far as I know. See daddy, I ain’t lost any customers,” he says, describing his inner drive.
Harold’s was a humble-looking eatery but wildly popular hangout for ACU students, faculty, staff and alumni. (Photo courtesy of Steve Butman)
A quick look around the restaurant shows how important family is to Harold. A large portrait of Toby and Mattie, Harold’s mother, hangs on one wall. On the opposite wall are pictures of son Andrei in an Army uniform; son Russell with Nolan Ryan in the restaurant; daughter Vanessa in a tutu; and another of Toby wearing a barbecue apron in the restaurant. The staff at Harold’s is all family.
The most famous exception to family employees and family pictures is John Stewart, a former Hardin-Simmons University student. He is better known by the words underneath his picture, “The only white boy to ever work at the pit.”
“He took it on himself to put that picture up,” Harold says, as he chuckles, and then admits he is not an equal opportunity employer.
The legacy of Christian barbecue seems safe. Russell, works alongside his dad.
“I love it,” Russell says. “It’s a lot of fun – some of the time.”
And is Harold as tough on Russell as Toby was on Harold?
“He’s rough. Everybody says he is, and it’s true,” Russell says.
Although not as much as she once did because of illness, Mattie works occasionally at the restaurant. The much talked about hot-water cornbread is her creation.
Drucilla also works at the restaurant. The two high school sweethearts have been married 28 years. Drucilla, a drum major at Woodson, caught Harold’s eye one day as she practiced her routine in front of her house.
“She was on the front porch, twirling her baton,” Harold said. “She had her shorts on; ummm, you know how that is.”
The relationship might have never materialized, Drucilla said, if she had not asked shy Harold to a dance.
Nowadays, they are in the big kitchen behind the restaurant with too much work and not enough time. Harold has sweat on his face, and his words are tight Thursday afternoon as 5 o’clock draws near. Friday is the restaurant’s busiest day. Harold also has two parties to cater during the weekend, one for 50 people, the other for 200.
He swings open the black doors to the pit and shoves several huge chunks of beef onto a crusty rack. Enough meat is on the rack and in the kitchen to reconstruct a pasture full of cows.
“Somebody turn that pot of beans down low or they are gonna cook too fast,” he barks.
Russell is scurrying about, taking care of customers who straggle in. He has perfected a junior version of the growl.
Drucilla is finishing making a meat pie, Harold’s favorite. She takes the pie, filled with ground beef, cheese and spices, and topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes, and cuts a big piece for Harold and Russell.
“We can cook anything,” Harold boasts. “I can cook a steak that will make you jump over the river.”
Although Harold is the most famous cook in the family, he admits Drucilla is a better cook. Anyone who has had her meat pie knows he speaks the truth. “But not barbecue, she wouldn’t give it the time like I do,” he says.
Time, Harold says, is the secret to good brisket. “My daddy would say, ‘Don’t put anything on a customer’s plate that you wouldn’t eat yourself, and you will be putting out some pretty good food.” Toby never seems to be far from Harold’s mind.
“I have a dream,” he says, “just like Martin Luther King said. My dream is to patent my barbecue sauce and put it in every store from here to Iraq.”
The creator of this sauce was Mattie’s Uncle Judd. The sauce has been served by Toby and Harold through the years without change.
The dream is no whim. Harold has three concrete reasons why he wants to do it.
First, because it was a dream of Toby’s. “I want to fulfill his dream,” Harold said. “I still want to include my father.”
Second, Harold wants to make his sauce available to friends and customers who no longer live in Abilene.
Third, because the barbecue business is not the most lucrative in the world, Harold would like to make some extra money so he can retire.
Several jars of sauce, covered with a Harold’s World Famous Bar-B-Q label, sit on a counter in the restaurant waiting to be discovered by the world. The sauce comes in two flavors, hot and damn hot.
A little voice keeps urging Harold to do something about the distribution of the sauce.
“Every night,” he says, “I can feel it saying, ‘Harold you need to get that sauce going.”
Chances are, the little voices sounds more like a deep growl.