197 HOUSTON, TX: History, Funeral Museum, BBQ, and One Huge Church

June 15, 2021

Join me in Houston, TX for Part II of my adventures with my old friend, Doug Harris.
In this episode, Doug and I eat the best Texan BBQ, visit the National Museum of Funeral History, and stay at the wonderful Homewood Suites by Hilton.
Doug gives me an interesting history lesson of this great American state.

Howdy again from Houston, Texas. 

Welcome to the second half of my day with Doug Harris — a proud Houstonian and old friend who is taking me around his beloved city. If you missed the release of Part I last week then be sure to give it a listen to get up to speed with my time in Houston with Doug Harris.

Let’s jump back into it.

LAKEWOOD CHURCH 

Doug and I continue our adventures through the city in Doug’s car, and he takes me to a popular site in the city: Lakewood Church. The building was previously called the Summit (subsequently changed to Compact Center before becoming Lakewood Church), a 17,000-seater venue that used to be the home ground for the Houston Rockets NBA team. It is also where Doug saw ZZ Top and Aerosmith perform live a few years prior, but now it is a very large place for worship.

Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen are on all the social media platforms: there’s an app, a podcast, and a very slick website where they also live stream that includes a webshop with books from Joel and his wife Victoria, and his mother Dodie.

HOLY FATHER AND HIS SON

The church was founded by Joel’s father, Paster John Osteen, and Joel worked in the background as a TV producer up until his father passed away. When that happened, he stepped up and assumed the role of Senior Pastor at Lakewood Church. 

I went to their website and saw a video from a sermon a few weeks ago. It does not look or sound like a regular church. As Doug said, it’s an arena with 17,000 seats that starts with a band on stage with lights and a cheering audience. The production itself is very professional. It’s like watching X-Factor or a big award show with several camera angles. Then Joel and his wife take the stage.

With 17,000 people in the church arena and I don’t know how many listening on Sirius XM satellite radio in North America, and a global audience watching the live stream, it’s certainly not your average church experience. It is very different from what I grew up with in Denmark, where there would be just a handful of people in my local church on a regular Sunday.

TRADITIONAL TEXAS BBQ

Doug then took me to one of his favourite places for lunch, Charlies BBQ, where I got to taste some real Texan barbecue. He’s a regular there and he introduces me to some of the staff, making me feel welcome and special.

At the grill, we meet the guy behind it who happens to be the owner, Fote Demires, recommended I try the brisket and sausage as they are the most popular choices (apart from the ribs of course). He tells me that brisket is a staple in Texas, and if you head further east, they enjoy pulled pork.

After consuming a big plate of various tasty BBQ flavours, I carry on my chat with Fote.

“We’ve been in the BBQ business since before my time — some 60 years. As part of the second generation, I have been involved in operations for 30 years, taking over from my parents. My parents came from Greece and decided to open a BBQ shop because, well, it’s Texas. We’ve infused a bit of our Greece culture into the menu over the years, we offer gyros and make our own tzatziki.”

After a delicious lunch, Doug and I get back in the car and continue our Houston road trip adventure.

REMEMBER THE ALAMO

Doug tells me that Houston was named after Sam Houston, the first president of Texas and general of the Texas army. Texas used to be an independent republic that was once under the dominance of Mexico. After declaring independence from Mexico, the Mexican government sent a large army led by Antonio López de Santa Anna to attack Texas in bitter retaliation. 

Despite Santa Anna being an accomplished military tactician, he underestimated the strength of the Texan army led by Colonel William Barret Travis, who called for volunteers to assist his men in warding off the Mexican army’s attacks. Famous American frontiersman and folk hero Davy Crockett joined the cause where he and his volunteers took the famous stand at the Battle of the Alamo — a 13-day siege where they battled against thousands of Mexican soldiers in 1836 in San Antonio, Texas, 

“The critical purpose of the Battle of the Alamo was that it gave Sam Houston time to train his Texan troops by the Gulf of Mexico to launch a surprise attack on Antonio López de Santa Anna’s men. One afternoon while the Mexican army was taking a siesta, Houston’s men surprise-attacked and took the Mexican soldiers as prisoners. Apparently, de Santa Anna removed his general’s uniform as to not be identified by the Texas army, but his cover was blown when one of his men called him ‘generalissimo’”. 

The story with Davy Crockett and the Alamo is something I’ll dive more into when I visit San Antonio in a couple of weeks. It’s fascinating so stay tuned.

YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS

As folklore has it, Antonio López de Santa Anna had a mixed-heritage concubine who was with him during this time. Due to her mixed heritage, she had what locals called ‘yellow skin’ and she is the inspiration for the famous folk song The Yellow Rose of Texas

DOUG THE MUSIC MAN

And speaking of music, Doug is the kind of guy who always goes around with music in his head, and he is always humming and singing. I never noticed it before my visit, but as we’re leaving his office he was humming in the elevator and singing while walking out to his car. 

And he doesn’t seem to mind that there are people around him. He’s not shy at all and kept singing when we met other people in the freight elevator (great acoustics in there by the way) while maybe adding a “howya doin’?” between the verse and the chorus. He really spreads joy and smiles around him all the time.

Doug takes me to yet another impressive place, named after the city’s founder, the Sam Houston Race Park. It’s a famous horse racing track that also has a large paddock that plays host to music concerts throughout the year. It’s a prominent tourist attraction in Houston.

Many big country music stars have performed here. Doug strikes me more of a classic rock fan than a country music fan. To this he responded:

“Well, I’m a rocker — I was raised in the 60s and 70s on The Beatles, The Yardbirds, and Jimi Hendrix. Plus I made my bones in rock radio. I had a garage band back in those days and our bass player was a little-known actor called Dennis Quaid. But even though I’m a rocker, it would be silly not to enjoy some great songs from other genres and performers. And country music has some classic performers, like Willie Nelson and Bob Wills. So, I like all music because I’m a student of human nature. But I’m not a huge hip-hop fan. If I can sing along to it on the radio, then I enjoy it.”

HOMEWOOD SUITES BY HILTON

Doug found a hotel for me and was able to strike a deal with them for a better rate. It’s a Homewood Suites by Hilton, and it’s very artistic with a big mural on the wall behind the pool and a lot of art in the lobby.

I meet Bruce from the hotel and wants him to tell me more about the place. It’s in a part of the city that is more a corporate area with a lot of big companies and to me, it’s not the obvious location for a hotel.

“There was a need for a Hilton in this part of town, and in the short period of time that we have been open, we have seen the true value of our presence in this area. We are definitely more of a corporate-focused hotel. Our owners have tried to install more of a boutique flavour through the artwork they have installed. All of the art that you see on the walls is done by Mr. D of Houston, known as ‘Houston’s largest muralist’, who also did the hotel’s exterior murals.” 

Bruce was kind enough to show me around the 125-room hotel, including the outdoor kitchen, firepit, and another Mr. D mural hand-painted specifically for selfies. He showed me to my suite which was beautiful and very large. 

MORE ADVENTURES WITH DOUG

I got to hang out with Doug some more the next day. We went to an art gallery opening, and I followed his recommendation to visit the National Museum of Funeral History where I got to learn about caskets and coffins, hearses through history, plus the funerals of Presidents, Popes, and celebrities.

They also had a gift shop selling caps, mugs, t-shirts, and magnets saying something like: “Any day above ground is a good one”. A really weird and kinda morbid place. But interesting…

NEXT STOP: LOCKHART

I’m so glad I got to spend some time with my old friend Doug and can’t wait to see him again soon somewhere in the world. Maybe we’ll share a room again, purely in the “interest of camaraderie and economics”.

That’s it from Houston. Now I’m heading back to Austin and returning the cool convertible sports car to Gary, and then heading a bit south of the city to the little town called Lockhart, where I’m housesitting. Well, it’s actually not in Lockhart but in a nice little house in the countryside – with dangerous snakes in the grass, and next to a noisy rooster farm with deaf owners.

My name is Palle Bo, and I got to keep moving. See you.

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