Consider the Popeye's biscuit.
I had occasion, recently, to wander into my neighborhood Popeye's and order exactly three biscuits, and nothing else: no chicken, no mashed potatoes, no red beans and rice, not even a drink. The reasons are unimportant. What matters is the discomfiting impulse I felt, while placing my order, to apologize, or to otherwise ameliorate for the poor Popeye's workers the experience of some deviant coming into their fine establishment to order three biscuits, and nothing else. Oh, it's not what you think—I ran over a transient with my car, and I need these to stanch his wounds, followed by a disarming shrug and a hasty retreat, as they sigh with relief: Oh, good, for a second there I thought he actually was just ordering three biscuits, like, for food. Wouldn't that have been weird?
We're accustomed to expecting our fast-food options to have originated in absolute horror—"chicken" sawed from some quivering, hormone-swollen, bioengineered mass of featherless meat in a sterile dry-ice-smoky laboratory somewhere, all twitching legs and heaving breasts, shitting and eating via the same beakless orifice; burger patties that have never been anything else since the moment they accumulated in a petri dish from a burbling froth of International Space Station-cultivated mold spores bombarded with laser beams—and in a perverse way, the sheer authentic-seeming biscuit-ness of the Popeye's biscuit works against it. If anything, this leads to the suspicion that it must result from an even more diabolical, Cronenbergian process, the sort of procedure in which the laboratory's new janitor mistakenly opens the Forbidden Door, catches a fleeting glimpse, and becomes an albino.
On top of that, there's the general sense that, within the fast-food fried chicken scheme of things, biscuits are purely accompaniments, bit players. Ordering Popeye's biscuits by themselves is not analogous to, say, going to McDonald's just for the fries, which have attained status as legitimate guilty-pleasure food in their own right. In our collective conception of the fast food symphony orchestra, McDonald's fries are the clarinet: a valued contributor to the grand accumulated effort, and also lovely on its own with maybe a little bit of ketchup (which, in this tortured analogy, is good stage lighting maybe?). Popeye's biscuits are the triangle.
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But, good God, the Popeye's biscuit is wondrous—a perfectly reliable little puck of buttery, fluffy, crumbly goodness—and there's really no denying it. Biscuits are pleasingly easy to make, for a baking job, once you get all the stuff you need (flour, baking powder, baking soda, butter, shortening, buttermilk, salt, those biscuit-sized metal rings for cutting the dough, a baking sheet): you kinda just smush all the ingredients together with your hands, fold the dough over a couple of times, cut out little disks with the rings, then bake the disks on the baking sheet for 20 minutes or so. Or, if you wish to cut out of the baking process the part where you supply your pantry with a canister of baking powder that will still be 95 percent full on the day your grandchildren clean out your house after your funeral, you can get one of the pre-sliced logs of biscuit dough and follow the helpful directions printed on it. But your biscuits will not taste as good as Popeye's biscuits. They will not taste as much like Popeye's biscuits as Popeye's biscuits do, and Popeye's biscuits taste like what biscuits are supposed to taste like.
That's not quite right, though, because even Popeye's biscuits, perfect and heavenly as they are, don't quite fulfill the experience of eating Popeye's biscuits. Not by themselves, anyway. No, there's a proven best practice for eating them, and we're probably all familiar with it. It begins when you load up your plate with all the various other components of your fried chicken feast: a couple of pieces of chicken, a glob of mashed potatoes, a scoop of red beans and rice and/or coleslaw, a biscuit or two. Immediately these components begin to acquaint themselves with their little puck-shaped neighbor on the plate, like overdrunk dudes at a lousy bar rushing to crowd around the one cute single girl there, each to drape his arm around her and bray deafeningly two inches from her face.
Now it's time to apply gravy to the mashed potatoes: "Aw, rats," you say in a too-loud faux-mumble (substituting your own anachronistic regional dialect as needed), as you [exaggerated air-quotes] accidentally [close exaggerated air-quotes] splash half a cup of gravy across your chicken, your coleslaw and/or red beans and rice, and, most crucially, your biscuits: "what a friggin' mess."
(This is a football-Saturday/Sunday variation on a pretense familiar from Thanksgiving gatherings across the United States: the dammit, I accidentally spilled a gallon of gravy on everything on my plate routine, which we have developed over the generations as a way of appearing to conform to our culture's puritanical prohibition of things that are good, while also cramming as much gravy into our bodies as they can contain.)
Now it's time to dig into your meal: alternating bites of chicken, potatoes, red beans and rice and/or coleslaw, conspicuously ignoring the biscuit(s) until everything else is almost gone. By the time you've nearly cleaned your plate of all else, the biscuit is a wreck, soggy with gravy and chicken grease and the coleslaw's sweet mayonnaise and/or the liquid from the beans and rice, and wearing on one side a goopy beard of mashed potatoes. It is ready for consumption.
Do you dig into this mound daintily, with fork and knife, so as to protect your fingers and face from what's sure to be a ghastly mess? Absolutely not. It's a biscuit. You pick that thing up with both hands, point the potato-beard at your face, and fire away. And what you discover with your first almost painfully ecstatic bite is that while the gravy and the chicken grease and the sweet mayonnaise and beans-and-rice sauce have penetrated the outermost layer of the biscuit, the inside is still buttery, fluffy, crumbly, and perfect.
You marvel at this as you eat. The other, nominally more central components of the fried chicken feast have found their most glorious expression in the harmonizing accents they imparted to the humble, gracious, oft-overlooked biscuit. Or maybe you just take a big gulp of orange soda and go fly a kite in the sunshine.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home.