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 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.
Biscuits aren’t only found in restaurants across the south—they are an important fixture of home cooked meals. 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 rightway to make them.
“They remind me of breakfast, you always eat biscuits at breakfast or any meal that you eat,” said 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.”
Biscuits have been a staple in the south for a long time, and don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon. But do biscuits define the south? Not at all. They are simply one piece of a puzzle that seems to form southern gastronomic identity. 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 said, 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 added. “Long as it’s on one of our biscuits, it’ll still be good.”