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Destination: Texas

Bluebonnets and Barbecue

Treating the palate to a Lone Star State specialty in a wildly flowered landscape

April 19, 1998|SHIRLEY SLATER | Slater (and Harry Basch) are authors of "Fielding's Freewheelin' USA," now in its third edition ($18.95)

AUSTIN, Texas — April is not the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot would have it, at least not April in Paris, Texas, and points south.

As the singing cowboy said, the stars are bright and the sage is like perfume, and in a good springtime--such as, by all accounts, this year's--the hills and fields and roadsides are blanketed with intensely beautiful wildflowers: bluebonnets, scarlet Indian paintbrush, buttercups and poppies as thick as those Judy Garland fell asleep among in "The Wizard of Oz."

Spring and early summer is the time to feast your eyes on the riotous display of vivid wildflowers and treat your palate to what many believe is the best barbecue in America.

By happy circumstance, the prettiest bluebonnets and the best barbecue are found together in central Texas. Imagine a triangle formed by the cities of Austin, San Antonio and Fredericksburg. It's in and around there that the looking and the eating get really good. When my husband, Harry Basch, and I first visited here nearly a decade ago, on assignment for a food magazine, we found out how neatly the bluebonnets and barbecue fit together. We were visiting Lady Bird Johnson at the LBJ Ranch on the banks of the Pedernales River. After describing her home-state highway beautification project (which had been the nucleus of a nationwide wildflower-planting program during her husband's administration), she gave us the recipe for the barbecue she and the late president used to serve their guests.

We also are convinced that traveling around America in an RV, with its own stove and refrigerator, is our personal reward for having spent 20 jet-lagged years sampling indigenous foods around the world at inappropriate hours. Now, at last, we can set up taste tests and note-taking for our food and travel writing in the privacy of our moving home.

We started RVing in 1992 when, while researching a ski guide, we rented a 27-foot Winnebago Brave motor home to visit the more remote areas. We liked it so much that at the end of our trip we bought it, astonishing not only our friends but ourselves. Since then we've spent three to four months a year on the back roads of America and found a freedom in travel we'd never experienced before.

We set out in our motor home last spring to drive across Texas from west to east, using Interstate 10 as the rough route. Texas is an RV-friendly state with electric and water hookups in many of the state parks (see Guidebook, L13, for recommended campgrounds).

We hit the first big bunch of bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) at a rest stop near Sonora just after passing through a scenically challenged section of I-10. This was not a cute little cluster or a photogenic patch, but a blue carpet of thousands and thousands of bluebonnets in every direction. Up close, they bear a strong resemblance to a wildflower in California we call lupine (Lupinus subcarnosus), but since we're in Texas and this is the state flower, bluebonnets they are.

From that spot near Sonora (about 90 miles north of the Texas border town of Del Rio), all the way east through the Hill Country around Austin and almost to the Louisiana border, we witnessed one floral spectacular after another, each seemingly more magnificent than the one before. Sometimes splashy red Indian paintbrush kicked in; other times lavender verbena; sometimes yellow buttercups, as the Texans call them, looking very much like black-eyed Susans.

The lavishness of the displays was treated offhandedly by herds of Texas longhorns lying insouciantly among the flowers like neo-Ferdinands. Late one day we saw an ostrich, then a pair of deer running across the road in front of us, leaping over a fence to disappear into the woods before we could get our cameras ready. There were flocks of long-haired mohair goats grazing behind fences, especially around the town of Leakey in Real County, a part of Texas that accounts for 92% of all mohair produced in the U.S.

For floral displays, the most outstanding routes during our drive were along U.S. 377 from the town of Junction on I-10 northeast to Mason, then east along Texas 29 to Llano where bluebonnets were mixed with Indian paintbrush. In the same vicinity, one of the state's most scenic wildflower routes, the Highland Lakes Bluebonnet Trail, meanders a back road from Austin north via U.S. 183 and along FM (farm-to-market road) 1431 past man-made lakes and small wineries, and through the little burgs of Marble Falls, Burnet, Buchanan Dam, Kingsland and Llano. Some stretches are narrow, so if you're driving or towing a large RV, you should check locally on road conditions.

The aroma of succulent barbecue kicks in around Fredericksburg, where folks will remind you that an important part of Texas barbecue comes from the sausages European settlers, mostly Prussians and Poles, introduced and still prepare.

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