You know what burns my biscuits? Bicuits and gravy. Or rather bad biscuits and gravy. I have a process when I visit a new restaurant: if biscuits and gravy is on the menu, that’s my order. It is the measure of any restaurant that serves it because it tells me everything I need to know about the cook and the target audience.
Biscuits and gravy is not hard in theory, but here in the northern US, it’s so very often done poorly for various reasons. The first one is health. Biscuits and gravy is not a healthy dish; it’s a heart attack on a plate and that’s the point. You cannot make biscuits and gravy healthy any more than you can make prime rib vegan. There may be some poor substitute, but it’s never going to approach the greatness of the real deal.
So first off, the question is "how far did they try to push it?" Folks, today I had THE worst plate of biscuits and gravy of my entire life, which is saying something, because I’ve had some bad biscuits and gravy. It did literally everything wrong. This plate was a plate cooked for old people and even then it wasn’t even cooked right, because they somehow neglected to scald the milk for the roux or maybe just didn’t use enough of it or, if I’m being honest, probably any, so the sauce was a watery mess of translucent sadness that tasted like flour, with zero salt or pepper or really any flavor at all other than the slight flavor of flour. In short, this place failed basic cooking skills.
What they were trying to go for is more common: old people food. Somehow there are just places around here that serve flavorless gruel that looks like the food advertised in the menu that has no salt or fat because they market it to a crowd that is highly averse to anything that’s going to subtract any time whatsoever off their life because they’re already on borrowed time. And yes, that is multiple places. So when I get a plate of something that looks too white, I already know what they did wrong, intentionally: they made a basic roux thickened with flour and put in bits of sausage that’s already had the fat boiled completely out of it, along with most of the flavor, because old people have no sense of smell left to taste it anyway. The cook knows it’s wrong and did it anyway. But I am not geriatric, so this is an easy way to cross a place off my list.
In absence of that, around here, it’s also common for them to just bafflingly not know how to cook it. Now, being a Yankee with an appreciation for Southern cooking, I will say that the best biscuits and gravy you can reliably get where I live is at Denny’s, which has its roots in the South. Which isn’t to say your Mom&Pop shops won’t try. But somehow even with the ubiquity of the Internet, they’ll just get it wrong. They’ll make the best roux they can and throw in the ground sausage with all the good flavor and fat still in it, but that just means all the good stuff is in tiny bits all over. I had to explain to one how it was done because the first time I went, it was the best biscuits and gravy I’d had since returning to the North. Only it was the last plate of it for the day and had time to all stew. There is valid ignorance up here on how to make what is by all other metrics a staple dish of every truck stop and diner in the state.
So, to explain how to do it right, you need to use the drippings from the sausage IN the roux. Throwing that out is throwing out all that wonderful fat and flavor. You save that by incorporating it back into the dish by way of the gravy. That’s it! That’s the magic! You don’t throw out the flavor! It’s not hard.
I mean cooking is hard. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to trivialize the amount of effort it takes. But there are just certain essentials that sound obvious when you phrase it that way. This is one of those forehead-slapping moments because you realize it was staring you in the face the whole time. But "common sense" is a lie. It’s often just flat-out wrong, and even when it’s not, assuming everyone knows it because almost everyone knows it means people who don’t know it most often feel stupid learning it. "Common" is not "universal." If you do have to explain something, be gentle. Especially because comfort food is probably not something a hoity-toity culinary school is going to concern itself with doing right because 1) it’s probably not fancy enough to teach in the first place and b) even if it’s covered, it’s going to be covered with a colonizer mindset. And make no mistake; the North absolutely has a colonizer mindset toward the South. America is just extra special that way where we have layers of it, even with White people, never mind the Black people who make up a large part of the Southern population. Native folk are the base of not so much a pyramid as a skyscraper of colonization. The North would absolutely drop a deuce in sweet tea and insist that makes it better because it takes the edge off all that unhealthy sugar. If you are going into making a Southern dish with anything but a love of food and a flippant disregard for the three years you’re going to shave off your life eating it, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re worried about your health, drink water and have yourself a boring salad without dressing and leave the good stuff for everyone else.
At any rate, that’s why biscuits and gravy is my measure of an eatery. If you’re cooking anyway, it tells me a) whether your food is for me in the first place, 2) whether you actually care about it enough to do a basic Google search, and iii) how well you follow through on the execution, because even if the other two points hold, I have had some fantastic biscuits and gravy and will spend the rest of my life chasing that high. Anything that can bring me anywhere close to that first bite is a place I’m probably going to frequent. If it can get within an inch of it, expect to see me frequently. If it can brush against it, you have my undying loyalty, because that’s basically like recreating a first kiss. As Sade said, "it’s never as good as the first time." But at the same time, I have gotten very, very close, and when I have, I have returned for it daily for as long as it’s lasted.