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The East Texas Plate Lunch

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
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 baking.

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 want them?"

The waitress straightened up and looked my friend squarely in the eye: "Sir," she said, "I think it's the law."
All Things Historical
July 1-7, 2001
Published by permission.

(Bob Bowman is a former president of the East Texas Historical Association and the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore. He lives in Lufkin.)

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