Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The first time I made biscuits and gravy, I told a southerner it was almost as spicy as chili, and she said, "That's how it's supposed to be." I had lived in New Orleans nearly four years, so this was ten years ago - meaning I'm still a newcomer to it.

Biscuits and gravy were my first meal after moving to the South. That wasn't by design. I hadn't made it quite as far as New Orleans yet - my first meal in the city was overpriced potato chip catfish in the French Quarter at a restaurant you shouldn't trouble yourself with - and was getting breakfast at Hardee's before the last leg of the drive. I guess I'd heard of biscuits and gravy before but had no real idea what to expect. It's not exactly obvious to unprepared ears that the gravy is a thick, heavily seasoned sausage gravy, for instance.

Virtually the only time I ate breakfast at the University of New Orleans cafeteria was that first summer in New Orleans, because I was living in the dorms while looking for an apartment for August-and-points-south. It's a non-residential campus and the cafeteria closes in the afternoon in the summer - you had to make other arrangements for dinner. So it made sense to eat breakfast - maybe if you started out a little fuller, you wouldn't be hungry enough to need to walk off campus to Lee's or Bud's Broilers in the sauna-like, appetite-ruining humidity.

At least once a week, that breakfast was biscuits and gravy. Here's the thing about the north: fuck your biscuits, North.

Southerners may disagree with me that it is damn near impossible to get a bad biscuit in the South, but compared to the selection in lands where people say "you guys" instead of "you all," believe me: southern biscuits are consistently excellent, flavorful, homey, fluffy yet substantial. What's more, you can have a terrific meal, and yet the biscuits are the thing you remember most. To some ears, this is inconceivable; this is like saying you had the best Chinese food in years and that the best part was the plain white rice. It's a neutral palette, right? It's a soaker-upper. It's a vehicle for other flavors.

Fuck your biscuits, North.

I didn't try to make biscuits and gravy for a long time because, I don't even know why. Maybe because my girlfriend of that era was lactose-intolerant, though I did make dairy things for myself on nights when she wasn't home. Maybe I was just working my way up to it. Maybe I just had too many Yankee bubbles clinging to my skin that hadn't expired yet even after lengthy immersion in the warm murky waters of bathtub-shaped New Orleans.

You can't get the right kind of sausage up here.

I don't even remember the right brands, is the thing, because you never needed to notice them - you grab one of four or five brands, whatever's on sale if you feel like playing it that way, and you're fine. I know Bob Evans is perfectly good, but it's not sold here. Purnells Old Folks? Absolutely. Not sold here.

It doesn't have to be spicy. It wasn't at the UNO cafeteria. I don't think it was at Hardee's - peppery maybe. But there is something particularly notable about spicy gravy. Maybe it's the combination of the heat and the richness. Maybe it's because the warmth of the spice, the creamy warmth of the gravy, and the fluffy still-steaming interior of the biscuit add up to something that much more homey and comforting.

When I don't attempt my own sausage - and the texture is never quite right when I do, because I have a manual meat grinder but it's a pain in the ass to use and clean so I don't, and use the Cuisinart, and there's a reason that doesn't say "perfectly acceptable meat grinder" on the side - I use Jimmy Dean's hot bulk sausage. It doesn't taste quite right - it's not that it's less good, it just doesn't capture the mood properly - maybe because of a clash of associations, since the mild version of this sage-heavy sausage is what the northern half of my family uses in Thanksgiving stuffing.

It doesn't have to be spicy, it's not even usually spicy, but that's how I first made it and was told I was on the right track, by a random online acquaintance I was talking about southern food with, so that's how it's fixed in my head. A little peppery. Sometimes I add crushed red pepper or cayenne. Sometimes I add a little chopped onion when I'm cooking the sausage.

You crumble up and brown - not grey, but brown - half a pound of sausage, and don't drain the fat. The fat makes the gravy. You add a little flour, I don't measure, and keep stirring for a bit so that the flour doesn't taste raw. You add a couple cups of milk and stir it while the milk comes to the boil, and boom it's gravy.

Biscuits, I can't tell you how to make biscuits. No one can really tell you how to make biscuits. Go make some biscuits and make some more biscuits and eat good biscuits and make biscuits again, and it'll come together eventually. I use self-rising flour, maybe your grandma didn't. A southern brand is best - they use softer flour - but you're right, I'm not going to pay shipping on that either. You add a little fat to a bowl of self-rising flour - animal fat is best, lard, schmaltz, butter, drippings from whatever - and rub it together until it comes together like little peas. Use your hands, you make biscuits with your hands, like pinky swears and voodoo dolls. You mix buttermilk in. Knead as little as possible! Everything needing kneading in bread needs it not in biscuits. You bake them at 400 for 20 minutes.

Biscuits and gravy

It's not what you'd call pretty. You want pretty, bake a cake. They got schools for it and everything.

Ask your grandma, but that's how I do.


  1. Sara Lee's purchase of Bryan Foods was a bad, bad day. Bryan Foods' discontinuation of Bryan Hot Sausage was even worse.

    These days, Odom's Tennessee Pride (Hot) is the go-to.

    Regarding biscuits, I'm happy with frozen. Food tech has reached the point where frozen biscuits are as good as or better than anything I could make. I might make my own biscuits every now and then the same way I might make my own noodles -- just to keep my hand in.