Finding Your Biscuit Hand

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
Life starts to feel complete once you’ve slept in a caboose.
My wanderlust has reached a high pitch lately, with dreams of European travel coming, unbidden, at all hours. Since that’s not happening soon, given the tots in our house, my husband instead planned a quick mountain getaway recently.
That was all I knew — until I drove up, under his direction, to a sign for “Grassy Creek Cabooses.” We were somewhat in the middle of nowhere, off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Mt. Airy, and sure enough, overlooking rolling meadows and lolling cows, were plunked three tomato-red cabooses, just waiting for me to sleep off the stress of Chapel Hill life.

The cabooses came complete with their own back decks sporting lovely rockers. Pouring rain kept us from finding out how comfortable they were, though, so off we went to find a town with a decent cup of coffee and some Southern hospitality.
The hospitality, we found. The coffee, not so much. And when it came to the food … well, it reminded me of how easy it is to over-romanticize country cooking.
This was especially true of breakfast. When I go on trips like this, I want heartier food first thing than I usually eat. Nothing fancy, but still cooked with care — I want the Southern-grandmother food about which so many writers love to rhapsodize.
No breakfast dish, it seems to me, can break your heart more than biscuits and gravy. How so many people can take so few ingredients and make such a mess of them remains beyond me, but I can’t recall the last time I ate this with pleasure unless I made it myself — certainly not on this trip.
And the problem is, I don’t want to make it myself. Then I have to see just how terrible it is for me, and I can’t eat without guilt, as is possible during travel (after all, it starts with sausage, with a sausage-grease roux interlude, and ends with milk, possibly butter, and more sausage). But after this trip, I’m sticking to eggs and pancakes when I go out.
Half the battle is finding decent biscuits, of course. Again, how hard is this? For a place that makes them day in and day out, it shouldn’t take long to acquire a biscuit hand and make decent ones. I often make cream biscuits (just flour, baking powder, salt and cream), but for this dish, only flaky, rich buttermilk ones will do. Although there’s a bit of flour to clean up afterward, these truly do take hardly any more time than popping open one of those scary cans of “biscuits.” But even easier should be the gravy. So simple, but what too often comes out is thick, gloppy, floury, underseasoned goop on top of a cold biscuit. In truth, what biscuits and gravy demand just can’t be done well, I think, in the constraints of a diner-style breakfast: that is, fresh, steaming-hot biscuits, and made-on-the-spot gravy with well-spiced sausage and a roux lovingly and carefully cooked to rich gold.
So, at home, once in a great while, I make a fresh batch of biscuits and gravy, squeezing my eyes shut when the grease hits the pan. And there are so many ways to experiment even with this most basic recipe (which should never get too high-falutin’). Try substituting cider for some of the milk, or adding a bit of herbs, a dash of Tabasco or another hot sauce, some chopped onion (cooked with the sausage) or a dash of spice (next on my list is smoked paprika, with which I remain infatuated, and some smoked kosher salt).
But it wasn’t until I started searching my classic Southern cookbooks for gravy inspiration that I came across possibly the greatest gravy invention ever: chocolate gravy. How did I ever miss this before? Not for the faint of heart, a breakfast of biscuits and chocolate gravy, but neither is sausage gravy, so if it’s gravy you desire, why feel guilty? Pair it with some fresh fruit (strawberries, bananas, kiwi, blueberries) to reclaim some virtue.
Originally from the Ozarks and the hills of Mississippi, this is fine stuff, though a bit simple for my taste. I added a touch of coffee and vanilla to make it slightly more complex but without gussying it up too far. Now I just need a morning to myself in which to eat a biscuit covered with sausage gravy, with an over-easy egg on the side, followed by a dessert breakfast biscuit with chocolate gravy — something no one else should have to witness!
First published in the Independent Weekly, December 1, 2004

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