A "Damn Hot" Vision of Heaven
I’d like to tell you about a vision I had of Heaven. No, I didn’t see the skies rent asunder and angels flying around. Okay, it’s not actually a vision in the mystical sense. Rather, it was one of those perfect moments, a moment when you realize the extraordinary in the ordinary; a moment that you wish you could freeze and cling to for all time. A moment whose memory you will treasure always.
In Christian scripture and tradition, we speak of the joys of Heaven as “the marriage supper of the Lamb” or the “heavenly banquet.” Many of the stories of Jesus in the gospels take place over meals, and traditionally many of these have been interpreted as Eucharistic references, allusions to the Lord’s Supper, the central act of Christian worship, which itself is often interpreted as a foretaste of Heaven’s banquet, a gathering of the Christian family around the table. When the risen Lord broke bread with the disciples at Emmaus, "their eyes were opened."
So it is not surprising that my vision of Heaven took place at table. But it was not an elegant banquet, nor was it a family meal (though I was with my mother), nor was it a church supper. It was in a small barbeque joint in Abilene, Texas, Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q.
I went to college in Abilene in the 1980s. BBQ is a regional cuisine; as an ex-pat Texan living in North Florida (aka, South Georgia), I am regularly frustrated by how easy it is in the South to find pulled pork smothered in way too much sauce, but how difficult it is to find tender, mesquite-smoked brisket. In Abilene, one way you could divide the town was between those whose favorite BBQ place was Harold’s, and those poor, unenlightened ones who preferred the other place across town (I don’t remember its name, doesn’t matter, it wasn’t Harold’s). Guess you can tell which side I was on.
One of my college friends who had grown up in Abilene introduced me to the place. Harold’s is housed in a nondescript cinderblock building, not in the nicest area of town. Inside are a collection of picnic tables, each covered with red-and-white checkered oilcloth. Hanging on the walls are various items from the restaurant’s history: a menu with 1960s prices; photos from around the world of customers holding jars of Harold’s signature sauce in front of various landmarks. One of the photos shows some of my fellow college students in their band uniforms holding jars of sauce in front of the Eifel Tower. There’s another photo of a fellow college student who had worked at the restaurant, the caption reads, “the only White Boy to have worked in the Pit.” There was always a crowd for lunch, a mix of college students from one of the three small, church-related universities; airmen from the local Air Force base; and townies who knew where to find good food. It’s the sort of place that seems to have always been there, and seems as though it always will be.
It was before my time that the owner, Harold Christian, took over his father’s place and changed the name. He and his wife Drucilla presided over the line, serving up smoked brisket, sausage, chicken, pork, and all the fixin’s: hot-water cornbread (available with or without jalapenos), coleslaw, pinto beans (not the syrupy goop that gets served in Southern BBQ), corn on the cob. Sweet and unsweet tea were always on hand. Don’t forget the sauces, Harold’s signature barbeque sauce, of course, and if you needed some extra spice, his special “Damn Hot” sauce. That name was a bit shocking to a good, little, Baptist co-ed, but that didn't stop me from eating it. It was, as the name implies very hot, it was also delicious!
I moved to Tallahassee for grad school in 1990, but every visit home included a trip to Harold’s. In fact, the last time I went to Abilene was in 2005, to attend the funeral of my best friend’s father (who also happened to be my major professor). I was in town less than 24 hours, but managed to have lunch at Harold’s before the funeral. I have my priorities.
It was on one of those visits home that I had my vision. I had taken mom to Harold’s for lunch. I loved my mom, but we didn’t always get along—we could, however, agree on the best place for BBQ. We sat across from one another at one of the picnic tables. Mom had her usual pork sandwich; I had my usual beef brisket plate. I dipped my jalapeno cornbread in Damn Hot sauce and ate until my eyes watered. The place was packed, and we shared the picnic table with others. Some of the customers asked Harold to sing. One of the well-known traditions of the place was that Harold loved to sing old gospel tunes, but I’d never before been there when he sang. Harold started singing, one of those old gospel tunes that takes you back to childhood (especially if you grew up Baptist). Not a trained voice, but a rich voice steeped in the Southern, Black church tradition; a heartfelt voice. That’s when I realized this is what Heaven would be like. Not some fancy-schmancy formal banquet in the clouds with boring harp music. Heaven won’t be about status symbols, the things we so inappropriately attach value to in our fallen state; Heaven will be family, and love, and welcome. Heaven will be when mom and I can sit together and leave all the mother-daughter angst behind, but keep the love. Heaven will be when all of us, whether we are strangers now, whether different stages of life, whether from different backgrounds, are gathered together. Heaven will be when we all sing our songs, without pretention (I say that as a bit of a musical snob) or fear (how many of us are afraid to speak or sing?), but with joy.
This week the Abilene newspaper reports that the sign at Harold’s says they will close at the end of this month “temporarily, but indefinitely.” I’ve heard that Harold recently had a stroke, and none of the kids want to take over the business for a third generation. I can’t blame them, my father was a cook, and it’s hard work. This side of Heaven, all good things must come to an end. My mom passed away earlier this year; now it looks like the end is near for my all-time favorite BBQ joint. But I have hope. You see, I’ve had a vision, and I’m looking forward to the day when I get to sit again at table with my mother and all the saints. Just don’t be surprised at the irony if, when you get to Heaven, something called “Damn Hot” sauce is on the menu.