East of Houston, West of Baton Rouge

By Colman Andrews

Published on October 18, 2000

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 etouffe 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.

Then it's on to Gaskamp's Orchard Creek Farm, a few miles from Sunday's. Regina Gaskamp and her daughter and son-in-law, Ginger and Tracy Hillebrandt, grow blackberries, blueberries, two kinds of muscadine grapes, elderberries, and Christmas trees, but their biggest crop is mayhaws. The Texas and Louisiana mayhaw (Crataegus opaca), related to the medlar, is a small red- or yellow-skinned, yellow-fleshed fruit that tastes like a very tart apple. It makes a luminous jelly (Gaskamp's is delicious) and a sharp-edged wine, and Bill Johnson used its juice as a glaze at Sabine—but, like its northern counterpart, the cranberry, it's not a fruit you'd want to just pop into your mouth.

Gaskamp's husband, Harvey, who was the county agricultural agent in Jasper for 30 years (he died in early 1999), helped develop the domesticated mayhaw in Texas, grafting it onto haw-thorn roots—so it didn't have to grow in wet soil like wild mayhaws do. We watch Gaskamp's friends and relatives sorting mayhaws—among the last of the season. ''Mayhaws come in around mid-April,'' says Johnson, ''and the local joke is that they ought to call them aprilhaws, because they're all gone by May.''

Later that afternoon, as we pull into the parking lot outside the Lazy H Smokehouse in Call Junction, just south of Kirbyville on Highway 96, Flaco Jimenez and Ry Cooder are rumbling the door panels of the Buick with ''The Girls from Texas''. These _girls from Texas—and the rest of us, too—are hungry, and we've come to the right place. The Lazy H—run by Velma Willett with the help of Marie Johnson and of Willett's son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Jodee Willett, and her daughter, Rena Flowers—was named one of the top 50 barbecue places in Texas (where the competition is steep) a few years back by _Texas Monthly. And when we get out of the car, the air is thick with fragrant smoke.

The political climate at the Lazy H may be gauged by a couple of bumper stickers by the cash register: ''Whitewater is not over until the First Lady sings'' and ''If Clinton is the answer, it must have been a stupid question''. The gastronomic climate, on the other hand, is defined by the yards and yards of smoky beef sausages and racks of pork ribs stacked on one side of the place and by the Sunday-only buffet of vegetables on the other. The day we visit, the selection includes yellow squash casserole, fried okra, fresh corn off the cob in butter, pan-smothered garlic potatoes, a mess of greens, fresh purple-hull peas (Willett brags that she can pick a bushel in 16 minutes), cooked carrot rounds, and Thanksgiving-style stuffing.

The main attraction at the Lazy H, of course, isn't vegetarian in nature: It's the pork sausages and barbecued beef brisket and unparalleled jerky (see Saveur, January/February 2000)—which is long, thick, squared-off, smoky as a smoldering campfire, and unbelievably delicious. Willett, who took over the Lazy H in 1975, is also famous for her long-smoked ham and bacon. ''If I go visiting,'' she says, ''I always take my own bacon. Everybody invites you over for breakfast if you bring your own bacon.''

We sit down and basically eat everything in sight, including homemade peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream for dessert, with big glasses of lemonade on the side. I ask Willett for some recipes, for her greens, for instance, which are ingenuously plain but full of flavor (and not coincidentally of bacon). She looks at me and smiles and says ''Hell, any old one-eyed idiot can cook greens.'' Well, yes, I reply, but could we have the recipe anyway? Willett, who was once described in print as ''a brass-mouthed woman whose witty tongue is as sharp as the knives she uses to cut wafer-thin slices of delicacy'', squints down a little and says, ''The only reason you might have a chance to get any recipes from me is because I don't know nobody around here who reads your magazine.'' Then she tells us how she does it.

It's late afternoon when we cross the Sabine River on Highway 12 out of Vidor. (East Texas joke: Why is a hurricane like a divorce in Vidor? Somebody's gonna lose a trailer.) It's hot and dusty, and the beer is getting warm, but when we stop at a bait shack on the Louisiana side, they're out of ice, so we push on, cutting down to Interstate 10. Lucinda Williams is singing ''He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles…'' as we pass that town's city limits and head toward the hotel portion of one of its big casino complexes, the Isle of Capri (known over in Texas as the Pile of Debris, for its mock-castaways'-island design). We check in, fortify ourselves with some of Bill Johnson's bourbon, then head for the slot machines. The gorgeous Texans must be bringing me luck: I win $230 in a couple of hours' time, and, after some injudicious reinvestment of profits, still manage to walk out with $90 of it. We celebrate in the casino's restaurant, with salads all around.

We have a rendezvous the next morning with Glenn Daigle at Rabideaux's Sausage Kitchen in Iowa (that's ''RAB-a-dooze'' in ''Io-way''). Daigle was in the home construction business until 1992, when he bought Rabideaux's from its original owners, and he now constructs a remarkable variety and quantity of smoked and otherwise pre-pared pork products: His twenty-five or so employees process as much as 100,000 pounds of boneless meat per month into sausage, boudin (Cajun pork-and-rice sausage; far left), bacon, ponce (stuffed pork belly), tasso (spicy smoked pork), cracklings (fried pork rind), stuffed pork chops, and ''cushon d'lait'' (cochon de lait—whole roasted suckling pig). He also produces crawfish boudin and stuffed deboned chickens and turkeys (including his version of the legendary turducken—a chicken and a duck stuffed inside a turkey), and also turns about 50,000 pounds of fresh-shot deer into various venison products every fall.

''Everything is smoked with oak,'' says Daigle. ''I get it from the prison, cut by the inmates.'' He benefits from the law in another way, too: The county sheriff grows green onions for him, for his boudin. ''When I was a boy,'' Bill Johnson interjects, ''we called it ''dan', as in ''Want some dan, cher?''' Real boudin, cautions Daigle, isn't very spicy. ''Cajun food shouldn't burn,'' he says. ''If you taste the hot pepper while you eat it, it's too hot. If you taste it after you eat, it's just right.''

Outside Rabideaux's, we find two teenagers sitting sidesaddle out the sliding door of a minivan, blithely eating boudin squeezed right from the casings. We sit down at a nearby picnic table ourselves and dig into boudin balls (skinless boudin meat, formed into rounds, dipped in milk and flour, and deep-fried) and plump, crisp, lightly spicy cracklings—until we feel not unlike stuffed pork chops ourselves.

On the counter at Rabideaux's we've noticed a pile of sweet potato turnovers (''sweet-dough pies'') wrapped in aluminum foil. These, we learn, are made for Daigle in the nearby town of Lacassine by Delsie Vital, whose daughter Helen works for him. Through her intercession, her mom agrees to show us how she does it. We pull up to Vital's neat little house, where she welcomes us into her kitchen, not sure what all the fuss is about. ''What I know comes from my mom,'' she tells us. ''She'd make pies in a cake pan. I try to make them small, but sometimes they come out bigger. I don't use a knife. I'm old-fashioned all the way.'' As we watch, she rolls out her dough, her hands cloaked in surgical gloves, trims the excess with the side of a fork, then uses the same fork to crimp the edges. ''Mostly I just make these for my church,'' she adds.

We ask what else she cooks. ''Weekends,'' she replies, ''I make jambalaya, chicken, roast, corn or peas, rice with gravy...'' We start wondering whether we could somehow talk her into preparing one or two of these dishes for us—but our faces must give us away, because she quickly adds, ''Don't even think about it.''

Terry Allen sings ''Gone to Texas'' as we cross back over the Sabine and head for Beaumont, where Melanie Dishman, a friend of a friend, has promised to make us a traditional crawfish etouffee. Dishman, who has a degree in speech communications from Beaumont's Lamar University and years in the catering business, has worked is now development director for KVLU, her town's public radio station, and lives in a handsome, art-filled town house that could be situated in any good-size city in America. But her family owns a farm in nearby China, where they grow soybeans, blackberries, and rice, and Dishman grew up eating ''great fried chicken, Sunday roast with rice and gravy, and lots of crawfish. Around my house, if you didn't peel crawfish fast enough, you didn't get any. If you had a sore thumb, it meant you'd had a great afternoon.'' Texas Cajuns eat pretty much the same food as their Louisiana counterparts, she tells us, as she starts chopping celery, green peppers, onions, and the tops of some green onions for her etouffee. (''What do you do with the white parts?'' I ask her. ''Oh, I just put them in the refrigerator until they get rubbery, and then throw them away,'' she cheerfully replies.) But a good etouffee, Dishman adds, isn't easy to find. ''When I started ordering it in restaurants,'' she remembers, ''I thought it would be like my mother's. But so many people use tomato products in it, which is just wrong. I can look across a room and tell if an etouffee is one I want to eat.''

Outside Dishman's house, we say good-bye to Bill Johnson, punch up Johnny Copeland rhetorically asking ''Houston, won't you let me come home?'', and drive off together towards that very city, happy and full.

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