Harold’s Barbecue Vision

Art of the Meal

Who could have guessed, when Harold’s Barbecue opened in 1947, the Hembrees’ family concern would outlast such ironclad traditions as the Talmadge dynasty and Rich’s Magnolia Tearoom? Take a look at the dawn of a new millennium: The squat building in the shadow of the Federal pen still thrusts a crooked smokestack into the air; inside, Harold’s legacy of pulled and chopped pork, slow-cooked Brunswick stew and cracklin’ cornbread draws a vibrant crowd of Atlanta police and Atlanta University faculty, government workers and CEOs, toddlers and grandpas, all happily chowing down on food brought by lightning-fast waitresses, as quick with your order as they are with rejoinders. “Yeah, my daddy used to say, ‘It’s so good your tongue will slap your brain,'” ours told us.

The place looks like its last renovation might have been circa early 1960s, with its dark paneled walls and linoleum tile floor, oilcloth-covered tables and the yellow tinge of age on just about everything except the clientele. Two window-unit air conditioners run full-blast, as if someone forgot it’s no longer summer outside. Wall decorations run to posters of cars, pictures of Harold’s Little League team and covers of old Saturday Evening Posts.

Like other Southern restaurants kept alive by family tradition (the late Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room in Savannah comes to mind), Harold’s stands for many things, starting with consistency and quality. The pork is from hams, not shoulder; the beef is eye of round. Everything, including the chicken fingers, is made from scratch. I’m prepared to suffer the consequences of stating my opinion on Harold’s pork barbecue: This tender, clean-tasting ‘cue is good, but not great – I prefer smokier, open-roasted pig (Harold’s uses an electric smoker or closed pit for its hickory- and oak-smoked meats). But the sliced pork sandwich is a thing of genius, and like Harold’s itself, greater than the sum of its parts: just-toasted white bread, with two slices of Monarch dill pickle. You can ask for outside, inside or a mix of the two meats to satisfy your craving for carbon. The cognoscenti know to order it with the finely shredded, slightly sweet creamy slaw on top, and a squirt of the housemade hot sauce.

The ribs are tasty too, if skinny, but Harold’s is really all about the stew: Thick as the Okefenokee, with finely chopped pork and chicken bound by tomatoes and corn, it’s our favorite meal on gray winter days. With it, you must have the excellent, lacy-edged cornbread, laden with pork cracklin’s. “What are these?” asked one unsuspecting Yankee friend as he examined the soft, fried bits of hog fat. “Raisins?”

We suspect that Harold’s is perhaps less a restaurant than a touchstone – a place where Southerners go to remind themselves of their roots, and where newcomers learn the ropes. This pig and pone are a kind of literal oral tradition, relating agriculture and shared history in a way that’s much more authentic than Gone With the Wind-style hype. It’s why I will always think of my mother at Harold’s, and always long to order the glass of buttermilk from the menu – with cornbread, her favorite dessert.

At the Jonesboro Harold’s, the same recipes serve a more homogeneous clientele, in an atmosphere that looks like the rec room of a prosperous retiree, complete with signed sports memorabilia. Near the door, you’ll find the proclamation from Sen. Zell Miller, in which he paid off his bet to New York Gov. George Pataki after the Braves lost the World Series to the Yankees: Harold’s sent 20 pounds of barbecue to Pataki – and he’s pictured here eating some of it. Wearing a Harold’s gimme cap, he looks less like a millionaire Northern politician than maybe a truck driver, or a schoolteacher.

In other words, he fits right in the dining room crowd.

Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic. Contact her at gtcritic@mindspring.com.

Categories: Art of the Meal