April 15, 2011

Discovering a Southern Tradition One Biscuit at a Time

Another piece I wrote for my journalism class... 

Biscuit at Early Girl Eatery, Asheville, NC
Credit: (c) Nubby Tongue, Flickr. 
Start driving south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and there are two types of billboards that tend to stick out. The first are the religious ones, the towering billboards with messages like “Jesus Saves” and “Go to Church. –God.” The other type of billboard is just as commanding, but has more to do with what to eat than how to pray. That’s because the other type of billboard advertises biscuits. 

Biscuits have long been a staple component of southern culinary tradition. We’ve all heard of biscuit and gravy or biscuits and honey. But the various biscuit-based creations don’t stop there.  Giant billboards in Alabama advertise biscuit and fried chicken sandwiches. And diners across the southern states will eat anything you can think of between the two pieces of buttery biscuit goodness.

At Early Girl Eatery in Ashville, NC, biscuits creep their way into every corner of the menu, from egg and biscuit sandwiches to biscuits and gravy and pan-fried catfish with a biscuit.  The restaurant, which since 2001 has been serving what it calls a “Farm-to-Table Southern Comfort Food Experience,” makes their biscuits from scratch. Order one on its own, and they’ll serve the flaky, buttery treat with local berry jam, another house specialty.

“We make them with both butter and vegetable shortening,” the waitress informs us on a recent visit, “so I guess it’s the two types of fat that really makes the difference in ours.”

Yes, the fat. It’s the way the fat, typically butter though lard or shortening can be used as well, is used which distinguishes American biscuits from their British counterpart. In England and much of the world outside the United States, a biscuit refers to an unleavened baked good much like an American cookie. Here in the U.S., however, a biscuit is a leavened bread typically consisting of fat, flour and a leavening agent like baking soda (which is why they were originally called soda-biscuits). It may also include buttermilk, cheese or other ingredients.

The word itself, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, comes from the Latin meaning “twice cooked.” This is because biscuits were originally baked twice, much like Italian biscotti, which also means “twice cooked.”  Though the American version is unlike its flat, dry European cousin, Americans have warmly embraced their version of the biscuit.

At Waffle House, a chain of diners ubiquitous in the south for their breakfast specialties, biscuits are served on the side of most breakfast options, and biscuits with sausage gravy are also available. It’s obvious, however, that the biscuits aren’t made from scratch at Waffle House, with a less flaky interior and an overall more bready consistency.

But many biscuits in the south are homemade.  Biscuits aren’t only found in restaurants across the south, they are also an important fixture in home cooked meals. Many families have their own recipes and traditions when it comes to making these baked goods. They are often a central part of a meals at home, much like rice is a part of every meal in most Asian countries. They can be served at breakfast, lunch or dinner, as part of a dish or on the side. Sometimes they’re made free form, sometimes in perfect rounds. Sometimes with butter, sometimes with lard. Like any family tradition, everyone thinks they have the right way to make them.

“They remind me of breakfast, you always eat biscuits at breakfast or any meal that you eat,” says Solveig Hubbard, a native of Austin, Texas. “They also remind me of being little. I thought it was really cool because biscuits and honey is a thing, and at breakfast, biscuits and honey would be the coolest thing because it was like dessert at breakfast.”

Let’s pause for a second. Biscuits are a thing in the south. You know, the way black overcoats or iPhones are a thing in New York. Well, biscuits are a thing in the south

Biscuits are a part of southern identity, they are uniquely southern. In a nation where a diverse population often struggles to find common ground, food is a way that allows people to come together. Food is something that cannot be destroyed by political persuasions, that tends to remain generation after generation. Biscuits have been a staple in the south for a long time, and don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon.

Do biscuits define the south? Not at all. They are simply one piece of a puzzle which seems to form southern identity, insignificant as they often seem. But finding them as a common food all over the south is a special part of southern cuisine. That’s why it is why it is nice to walk into the bustling White Front Diner in Wilmington, NC, hundreds of miles from the last biscuit I had had at a Waffle House in southern Louisiana, and see that biscuits grace the menu.  I order a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, but tell the waitress to hold the bacon.

“You must not be from around here,” she says, perhaps noting my non-southern accent, “Why don’t you want the bacon? You a vegetarian?”

“Sometimes,” I tell her, in full honesty. She stares at me quizzically.

“Oh well,” she adds. “Long as it’s on one of our biscuits, it’ll still be good.”