Texas Plate Lunch
|On this very
day, thousands of Texans are running around looking for the best barbecue,
believing this is the national food of Texas.
In the face of this, it's probably heresy to say they've overlooked
the real culinary treasure of Texas: The East Texas Plate Lunch. It
is a savory, although unsung, pleasure that comes only from caring
country cooks who have mastered the magic of bacon drippings and cornbread
There are probably some decent plate lunches in Dallas
and Houston, but
an old-fashioned, homestyle East Texas plate lunch is a delight to
behold and taste--which, I am confident, cannot be matched by any
big city eatery.
There are several versions, but The Genuine East Texas Plate Lunch
generally consists of a choice of meats, the perennial favorites being
meatloaf and chicken-and-dumplings; two or three fresh vegetables,
one of which God has ordained to be mashed potatoes; a bread basket
bearing both homemade rolls and cornbread; and a fresh fruit cobbler,
preferably peach --accompanied by a tall glass of iced tea, preferably
about a gallon in size.
This kind of food, I was once assured by an East Texas logger, "would
make you slap your granny for seconds."
After years of sampling East Texas Plate Lunches, I have concluded
there is an unwritten law that says the best are served in nondescript,
slightly-rundown country cafes.
To illustrate, the Murchison Cafe, a few miles east of Athens,
looked like a l930's residence gone to seed. But inside was one of
the best East Texas Plate Lunches in existence. I told a friend about
the cafe and we drove 87 miles for lunch, but when we got to Murchison,
the cafe was gone. Not even a state historical marker to mourn the
passing of the Plate Lunch.
If I were wise and judicious in these matters, I wouldn't be talking
about The East Texas Plate Lunch, much less about some of the cafes
which offer these treasures. I'd share my favorite East Texas Plate
Lunches only with people who promise to put me in their wills.
I say this because once the word get out, there will be a stampede
of writers and television reporters intend on spreading the news of
the East Texas Plate Lunch to a hungry world. Once they do that, places
like the Murchison Cafe are seldom the same.
That happened a few years ago to a great barbecue place near Tyler.
The meals were served on tables made from discarded lumber and the
floor was mostly sawdust, but the barbecue was superb -- and its reputation
eventually made its way into Dallas.
It wasn't long before a television reporter called, wanting to feature
the barbecue on the Six O'Clock News.
The owner rushed out and bought a stock of glass plates, put checkered
tablecloths on the tables, and hauled in a load of fresh sawdust.
He even put curtains on the windows.
The transformation was not only disappointing to the television crew,
but to the barbecue regulars. They deserted the place, sure that the
remodeling had affected the taste of the pork ribs.
There are some things about The East Texas Plate Lunch that are sacred
and should not be messed with by either the cook or the customer.
A New York friend came down to East Texas on business a few years
ago, and I carried him to Petty's Cafe in Hawkins to sample The East
Texas Plate Lunch. He scanned the menu and noticed the Plate Lunch
came with turnip greens.
"Now, Miss," he lectured the waitress. "I don't want the turnip greens.
I don't like them. And while I know that everybody down here eats
them, I do not. Is that crystal clear?"
The waitress nodded her head and trotted off to the kitchen. She soon
returned with my friend's East Texas Plate Lunch. There on the plate,
in all their green glory, were turnip greens.
My friend was furious. "Miss, I don't understand this. Why on earth
have you served me turnip greens, even when I clearly said I didn't
The waitress straightened up and looked my friend squarely in the
eye: "Sir," she said, "I think it's the law."