O Dem Biscuits and Gravy!

This little treatise is offered somewhat (but only somewhat) tongue-in-cheek… with a bit of corn bread stuck in that cheek also… Originally written in 2004, the verity of the content remains constant and should be heeded by all lovers of truth (and good eatin’)!

My wife, Sue, and I have a very good friend. Her name is Bern, short for Bernadette. Indeed, she is such a good friend that she has graciously and kindly opened her home to us during this time in our lives. (We are currently house hunting.) Bern is a devout Christian, who loves the Lord deeply and is serious about her commitment to serve Him. However, there is a secret sin in her life — an iniquity and transgression that is so odious, so reprehensible, so offensive that, well, it truly pains me to divulge it. But divulge it I must. The truth demands it. Common sense and moral decency require it. It must come out! 

Let me tell how I discovered this moral failing in her life. Bern attends a different church than we do… same denomination, different congregation. Last week her church had a Chicken and Biscuits dinner (more on this later) as a fundraiser. The ladies of the church had apparently made an abundance of biscuits. So there were leftover biscuits, some of which Bern brought home to share with us. I saw her come in the door with a large plastic Ziploc bag abundantly stuffed with biscuits. Immediately salivation occurred. Within a moment my eyes were alight and my heart was pumping. My mind raced… biscuits with ham and eggs, biscuits with homemade apple butter, tomato sandwiches on biscuits, and best of all: BISCUITS and GRAVY. YUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!

I joyfully commented to Bern that I was so glad she had brought these delectable treats home. I told her how very much I loved biscuits. She commented that she was glad and that I could have all the biscuits I wanted because… well… uh… well… I hesitate to repeat the words, but I must press on… she actually said, “You can have all the biscuits you want because I really don’t like biscuits very much.”

Aaaaarrrggggghhhh! Oh perfidy! Such blatant infamy! Such heinous criminality! It is a moral and culinary outrage of the highest and grossest kind! How could it be? How could such a good person utter such profane language? Not like biscuits?! It’s akin to not liking puppies or kittens. It’s like hating little lambs. Why, it’s tantamount to not liking Christmas or birthdays! I… I… I… just don’t understand.

Of course, as I begin to reflect on the matter, there are some mitigating factors. Bern did grow up in Kansas. And anyone who has spent her youth eating nothing but corn and having her hair blown about by twisters can’t think reasonably all the time. And she has spent many years now in Pennsylvania. Yes, that’s it. Her neural functioning has been impaired by too many perogies, and overdoses of pork and sauerkraut. It’s all that green and red stuff from the inside of cabbage rolls that has affected her ability to think. That must be it. Yes. Yes. For the sake of her everliving soul, there must be a valid reason!

You see, I myself understand the proper and acceptable standards of moral gastronomy. I have an intimate knowledge of appropriate food value. Poor Bern has not been blessed with such arcane knowledge. A Midwesterner, who now dwells in bona fide Yankee territory, is clueless to the fine art of ethical cuisine. For it should be self-evident that such profound knowledge can only be acquired by someone who grew up in the South!

Do you doubt my word? Let me make my case.

First of all, there is the matter of nomenclature. Only Southerners know how to speak of food with the proper reverence and affection. We know what it means to go into the garden and pick a mess of beans, or have a friend bring you over a mess of greens. To Yankees a mess is something bad, something you don’t want. But a mess of cat fish is pure heaven.

The inherent ignorance of those living above the Mason-Dixon line was brought home to me some months ago when Sue, Bern and I were talking at the supper table. I happened to mention how much I loved pot liquor. A perplexed and dumbfounded look flashed across Bern’s face. “Pot liquor? What’s that?” she queried. (I should have recognized at that moment how defiled and corrupt her appreciation of haute cuisine truly was.) I laboriously had to explain to her the sublime nature of the broth that was to be found in a simmering pot of beans or greens, seasoned liberally with pork fat, and just bursting with odoriferous pleasures. (MMMMMM! Just thinking of it makes my mouth water.) Why, I can remember as a kid practically begging for a cup of pot liquor… country nectar is what it is. (A careful study of the original Greek will probably reveal that Homer was referring to pot liquor when the spoke of the “nectar of the gods.” If this is so, then corn bread must be ambrosia.)

Speaking of food language, I must share with you my first exposure to a “Chicken and Biscuits” dinner in PA. I remember the first autumn we lived here in PA—back in ’97. The ladies of our church (same church Bern still attends) were preparing to host a Chicken and Biscuits dinner as a fundraiser. I agreed to prepare some promotional flyers for this event. I have quite a large library of clip art on CD’s, but I searched in vain for an appropriate picture to put at the top of the flyer. I went to the dear sister in charge of the dinner. I explained to her that try as I might, I just could not find a picture of fried chicken and biscuits. She broke into uproarious laughter. When she could calm herself enough to be coherent, she explained that there was nothing fried at this dinner. Here in PA, a chicken and biscuits dinner consists of a translucent, corn-starchy, chicken-flavored gravy poured over boiled chicken breasts, served on top of biscuits. This is served along with mashed potatoes, and appropriate vegetable side dishes. Not too bad fare, actually. But you say “chicken and biscuits” to a Southern boy, and he is immediately visualizing crispy, golden-brown, mouth-watering fried chicken served with steaming hot biscuits. I guess it’s just a matter of Yankees not knowing how to talk right.

Oh the list of trangressions and offenses could go on and on and on. But in the interest of time, indulge me as I recount only a partial list of gastronomic sins that I have observed:

>>> “Pigs in a blanket” Up North they are not sausages in pancakes, or even hot dogs wrapped in a biscuit. No, not here. Here, they are cabbage rolls, stuffed with some kind of amorphous and mysterious meat. (Although, I must admit, they are rather tasty.)

>>> Okra is an alien thing here. Most people have never seen okra. “Okra? Okra? Is that someone who lives in Oklahoma?” The one saving grace to the region is that there are Cracker Barrels around here where I can go to get my fried okra fix occasionally satiated.

>>> “Brunswick stew? No, I don’t like Canadian food.” How can any people exist who have never even heard of Brunswick stew?

>>> The problems with HAM. Yankees don’t understand ham. They do great with pot roast and lobsters and Eye-talian food, but they are lousy when it comes to ham. For one thing, they drool and get all hepped up over something called “pressed ham.” In the South, pressed ham is something you would only feed to tramps and hobos, and maybe your neighbor’s dog. Now I know what ham is. Ham comes from the southern part of Virginia, the Smithfield region, d’ja hear me, boy! Ham is cured in smokehouses and coated liberally with salt. Ham is something so dry and salty that one bite sucks all the moisture out of your mouth. Two bites and your salivary glands are now bankrupt. Three bites… and, well, by now you are in the hospital and hooked up to an IV to compensate for your dehydration. Now THAT’S ham!

Now, on the other side of the street… get your salivary glands in gear, prepare for stomach growling… let me list for you some of the gastronomic wonders of Southern cuisine.

First, there is (are?) grits. Nothing like good grits in the mornin’. Not too runny, and with your fried eggs mixed in (“over easy, please”).

Then there’s corn bread. And none of this sugary sweet, cakey nonsense. Honest to goodness corn bread, baked in an iron skillet, dry as a bone—just waiting to suck up loads of butter. This is not to say that variations on corn bread aren’t acceptable. Fried corn cakes are just fine. (Hoe cakes my grandmother called them.) And spoon bread is a dish to die for.

Then there’re all the goodies out of the garden. Time would fail me to adequately describe the marvels to be found in fresh corn drowning in butter, butter beans, a mess of string beans seasoned with fat back, black-eyed peas, and greens. Oh, the pure ecstasy of greens—collards and kale and turnip greens and mustard, plus dandelion greens and poke salad. And my mother’s favorite—cress, what she called “cree’ salad.” Ooooooooo!

We can’t forget the sweets: sweet potato pie, lemon chess pie, coconut cake, and fried pies. Oh goodness. I haven’t had a fried apple pie in a coon’s age. My mouth waters.

Speaking of sweet… we can’t overlook iced tea. Tea is the “table wine of the South,” as one writer put it. Tea has to be served sweeeeeeeeet. Indeed, good tea has enough sugar to throw any diabetic into a coma. The question, “Do you want your tea sweetened or unsweetened?” is a sure sign that you are in Ulysses S. Grant territory.

Lest I forget… there’s meat to be considered. Fried chicken, of course. (You know that chicken has to be fried in lard! Any of this vegetable shortening stuff, and the chicken’s liable to just up and jump outa the pan!) Pork chops. Ham, we’ve mentioned. Fried catfish. And fresh game. Yep. What Southerner hasn’t tried squirrel or rabbit or venison, or even bear?

Which reminds me, I can vividly remember one occasion when some of our uppity cousins from the North came to visit. They showed up unexpectedly and Mama, being the good Southern lady she was, was worried sick that she might not have enough food to feed them. (It wouldn’t matter if every inch of the table was already covered with dishes, bowls, pots and skillets… she would still have more food ready in the kitchen.) In desperation she went looking to see what was available in the freezer. And lo and behold, there was a prize… two handsome ‘coons, skinned and ready to cook. Mama thawed those little bandits and cooked ‘em up in two neat pot pies. I watched her stand in the kitchen and listen amusedly to those beloved Yankee “aristocrats” ooh and aah over the scrumptious “beef pot pies” that Aunt Nell had made. They had never tasted anything like it. Oh, how she laughed!

And finally, and of course, there must BISCUITS. Oh my. Fluffy buttermilk biscuits, lathered in butter, dripping with honey, floating in Brunswick stew, erupting with a layer of apple butter of volcanic proportions, or bathed in gravy…

And speaking of gravy… let me tell you about it. My Mama was real cook. She was pure Southern, pure country, and pure mountain. Sundays were feast days in our home. Goodness, at Sunday dinner we enjoyed a spread that Henry VIII would have longed for! It was also the day we often had a BIG breakfast, especially when family came to visit. Aahhh! I remember those breakfasts so vividly that I can almost taste ‘em now. I would load up my plate with fried eggs, patties of country sausage fragrant with sage, fried apples, juicy tomato slices, and fresh from the oven biscuits. Then, oh the joy, I would take some of Mama’s gravy… that pan cooked, browned to perfection, loaded with sausage drippings, milk and flour gravy… and I would cover everything on my plate with it. My, oh my!!! What? Never tried gravy on fried apples or garden ripe tomatoes, or even eggs? Give it a try. It’s pure heaven.

I gotta tell ya, all this gastronomic reverie has stirred up my Southern, hillbilly blood, and got my stomach to growlin’. I reckon I’m gonna haveta leave ya’ll and get me some dinner. My hunger’s purt near drivin me plumb crazy. Now, be honest, ain’t no ‘count pretendin’ that you all ain’t hungry too. You know you is! So why not go get ya’self some good, down home country cookin’ and give it a try. You’ll find it’s surely the best eatin’ around. And if that ain’t true, then grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Dolly Parton is a man.

P.S. Please pray for Bern’s salvation from Yankee eatin’. Sue and I have been working on her. I think we almost have her converted.


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