End of the Line

Biscuit City

A side of the South in NYC?

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Here it is, torn from the pages of the New York Post: Empire Biscuit! New eatery in Manhattan’s East Village! Packed with hip or hipsterish young adults gorging on a wide range of “biscuit-centric” (the term is the Post’s) bites to eat! And it’s open twenty-four hours! The biscuits: Southern style! “It’s a food that works for everything,” says one of the owners (they both have Southern backgrounds), “breakfast, lunch, dinner, drunk.”

Ah, biscuits. Is there anything that says “traditional eats” more than homemade biscuits? You may recall, from the seventies, Kinky Friedman’s counter-women’s-liberation song, “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” Let’s try a more contemporary spin:

Say someday your sweetie’s kiss gets
Stale, you still can crave her biscuits—
Or his, of course.

But who of either gender’s baking biscuits
Nowadays? Hence statistics
Of divorce.

Can the biscuit gap be filled on Avenue A? Here I am at Empire Biscuit. Noon. I’m the only customer. The fellow behind the counter says the crowds come on the weekends and at 4:00 a.m., when the bars let out. Hmm.

I order two of the primary biscuit sandwiches: an Edwards Country Ham and Egg, and a House Made Pork Sausage, $6.50 apiece, and one of the special combination biscuit sandwiches (which have names), the You Oughta Know, pimento cheese and red pepper jelly. Sides: cheese grits and sweet and sour collards.

The grits are of the large-unit (whole kernel?) variety, cooked way soft, with some cheese sprinkled on top. This is not how I like my cheese grits. The collards are too sweet for me. I mean, you put a pinch of sugar in a pot of collards to bring out the flavor, but—am I right?—you don’t want your collards to taste sweet. As for the sandwiches: The ham and the sausage and the pimento cheese are fine, and so is the pepper jelly, but a whole lot of pepper jelly (which come to think of it may be a little too sweet) on top of pimento cheese, all squeezed together in a biscuit, overwhelms the pimento cheese. (Heaven only knows which elements prevail in the First-Timer, Gorgonzola and nutmeg butter with candied mango jam; or the You-So-Nasty, grilled pineapple, dried cherry, and jalapeño jam with house-made cream cheese.)

As for the biscuits. I don’t think they really register. They are not by any means trashy biscuits. They are from scratch, White Lily, no doubt, and lard. But these biscuits are flat. Uniform. Apparently designed to be readily sliced and filled with stuff (for instance, in the Vacación, spiced rum butter and banana pudding), in such a way that the stuff will not ooze out.

Now, I might dismiss biscuit-centrism as a flawed concept on the grounds that in a biscuit sandwich, the biscuit is not in the middle. But that would be a cheap shot. Nor will I leap to accuse these biscuits of being ironic. I am quite aware that a common criticism (I think it’s meant to be a criticism) of people called hipsters is that they wear ironic mustaches. But that, as I understand it, is because these mustaches tend to be so pointed. The biscuits of Empire Biscuit—here’s your irony—tend to get lost in the shuffle.

Biscuits, my friends, are a side. But not because they are subsidiary. Because they have a kind of musty (in a good sense), heavyish-but-fragile value unto themselves. Sure, put stuff in them, but not, in the name of heaven, banana pudding, and not until you put in a big pat of butter and watch it melt down into all the interstices of the biscuit itself. And glory in the crumble, and glory in the ooze.

Enough with the biscuit criticism (biscrit, to be short), you may be thinking. What you don’t know is this: Empire Biscuit set me off on a biscuit bender. Over four days, in New York, the Atlanta airport, and Decatur, Georgia (my high-school reunion), I found biscuits in eleven restaurants. None quite hit the spot.

The last place was a Thumbs Up Diner (an Atlanta-area chain) in Decatur. The biscuits were whole-grain. And not crusty enough. And get this: The servers wore T-shirts saying, “Relax…it’s just eggs.” What? That sounds like something you’d say to someone who’d just been pelted with them. Irony, maybe, that I don’t get. But tell me this: Did you ever hear anybody say, “It’s just biscuits”?