East of Houston, West of Baton Rouge
Me and two gorgeous Texans—a long, tall, redheaded location scout and a bright-eyed brunette photographer—are doing 75 miles an hour up Highway 59 in a dusty, white, year-old Buick Regal with the sunroof open and the ashtrays full, three six-packs of Lone Star in the cooler in the trunk, and Chris Gaffney on the stereo singing ''East of Houston, West of Baton Rouge''—which, as it happens, is exactly where we are.
Bill Johnson, a lanky, fast-talking Houstonian who was born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, got me into this. Johnson used to own a restaurant in Houston called Sabine, named for the Sabine River, which forms much of the Texas-Louisiana border. Though the cooking at Sabine, which closed last year, was modern American in tenor, the accents and many of the ingredients came from the territory on both sides of the river—from an area stretching from Lake Charles into the so-called Golden Triangle, defined by the Texas towns of Beaumont, Jasper, and Orange (and named, some say, for the color of the region's ubiquitous rice fields).
''A Cajun can look at a rice field and tell you how much gravy it'll take to cover it,'' Johnson observed to me one day, over pecan-crusted pork chops at Sabine—where I found myself eating every time business took me to Houston. Then he reminded me that there are Cajuns on both sides of the river, and that ''Gravy is what we call everything that comes off the meat: the juices, the drippings, everything.'' He used to tell me things like that all the time. ''We ate rice at every meal,'' he'd say, ''but potatoes were so rare, I grew up thinking they were a delicacy.'' Or ''Any time you stop by someone's house around Lake Charles, they'll offer you something to eat, because they cook such big portions, they always have leftovers.'' Or ''You haven't tasted peaches till you've tasted Jasper peaches. And have you ever tried mayhaws? No? Cher, you have got to come down to the Sabine with me.'' His enthusiasm always seemed so genuine, that I was sorely tempted to say yes—especially when he added that he'd bring the bourbon.
But first we sent that redhead to reconnoiter. She spent a weekend prowling around East Texas and western Louisiana with Johnson, ducking in and out of smokehouses, sampling everything from mayhaw jelly to crawfish étouffe on our behalf. Her report: Don't expect some entirely new and different, undiscovered version of Cajun cooking; do expect to eat lots of simple, irresistible food. That sounded pretty good to us—which is how we've ended up in that Buick, on our way to join Bill Johnson.
We're cruising along somewhere outside of Livingston, while Lyle Lovett reminds me musically that I'm not from Texas, but that Texas wants me anyway—when it dawns on me that this is not like any Texas I've ever dreamed of. The terrain is mildly hilly, and crowded with dense stands of pine trees, accented here and there by dogwoods, magnolias, oaks, maples, and mulberries. This isn't cattle-drive territory, Alamo-land, or cosmopolitan Austin—and it's certainly not the vast, flat plains of the western reaches of the state. This is the Texas of the Big Thicket National Preserve, and the 114,500-acre Lake Sam Rayburn, where bass fishing is more cult than recreation. The Texas where the stench that drifts through the air now and then comes not from cow manure but from the local paper mill. The Texas where, in towns like Woodville, where we stop for the night, the only place to eat after 8 p.m. is apt to be the Sonic drive-in—and this is precisely where we pick up chili dogs and jalapeño poppers for dinner, which we wash down with a few of those Lone Stars, sitting in the warm, damp air by our motel pool, talking about love and life and music.
The next morning, with Dave Alvin singing ''East Texas Blues'' in the background, we drive out to Jasper, where we meet up with Bill Johnson at his friend A. L. (Leon) Sunday's Magnolia Hill Peach Orchard. Sunday grows 12 varieties of peaches on about six hundred trees, harvesting them from early May through mid-July, beginning with split-pit flordakings—which are glowing on the branches as we arrive. Virtually everything he and his family and friends pick is sold from the farm stand out front, at $27 a bushel or $14.50 a half-bushel. (A bushel averages about 50 pounds.) ''We cull them in the fields,'' Sunday says, ''then I cull them again when I box them up in front of the customers. My theory is you don't sell anything you wouldn't buy yourself.'' The flordakings, he admits, are not the most flavorful of peaches, ''but they get people started.'' They sure do: Biting into a piece of the juicy fruit, my first fresh peach of the year, I think I'm tasting paradise.