In early 2010 I interviewed to be a food critic at The Westword, an alt-weekly in Denver. As part of the interview they asked for an original long-form food piece on a something I’d eaten while visiting. I put a lot of thought into it. One friend I showed it to for critique, actually said that I put more thought into the subject of Biscuits and Gravy than anyone else in history, something he meant as an insult and I took as a compliment.
The result, this review of Lucille’s in Boulder, is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. However, the Editor never actually read the piece. Every time I checked in, there was another crisis that was causing the paper to punt on the hiring process. Eventually I got hired at Boise Weekly and it didn’t matter anymore.
But it did make me a bit sad, because I liked this piece so much. So here it is.
Lucille’s Creole Cafe–Redefining Baked Goods Since 1980
An anecdote: New Years Day. My friend’s couch. I elbow awake a new acquaintance whose name I hope to recall soon-ish rather than later-ish and loudly proclaim that I got a serious hankerin’ for some biscuits and gravy, as even the butterflies in my stomach have a bile-gurgling hangover.
She looks at me completely perplexed. “What are biscuits and gravy?” she says.
Are you stupid? I think. “They’re biscuits, with gravy on top,” is what I say.
She shrugs the shrug of the omelet devotee, and in that moment breaks my heart.
However, had our nameless scapegoat ever visited Lucille’s, a pleasantly-lit and brightly decorated café in a converted Victorian House, several blocks from downtown Boulder, I’m confident that she too would have had biscuits on the brain, for the team of alchemists working in the kitchen there have taken the elemental, and made it truly divine.
Yes. I’m talking about the biscuit. Hard-tack. Twice-baked bread. The baguette’s turd. Bisquickus Baked at 350-Degreeicus, to use words that sound vaguely like Latin.
Truthfully, it was a difficult decision to order the Carlin Plate; Biscuits Sausage Gravy, Red Beans and Grits, in the first place. It was flanked on the menu by delightful offerings like the Eggs New Orleans; Fried eggplant slices with creole sauce, poached eggs and hollandaise, or the New Orleans Praline Waffle; a pecan batter waffle topped with pecans, fruit and fresh whipped cream served with praline syrup. Then there was the variety of seafood options, like Eggs Sardou; Creamed spinach, Gulf shrimp, poached eggs and hollandaise, or the Cajun Blackened Salmon.
And as most of the selections were under ten bucks, making one of the primary appeals of biscuits and gravy, their brazen cheapness, unimportant, picking such pedestrian fare was nearly an act of masochism.
But like that fateful New Years Day, there was an irrepressible hankerin’. And to make a tired cliché, I followed my gut.
Though I’m fully aware of what this says about my personal life, The Carlin Plate was probably the best decision I’ve made yet this year. For when it arrived, it only took one bite to realize that this was a biscuit that redefined biscuitry; less a baked good than a manifesto that all other so-called biscuits must judge themselves by.
It was moist, soft and warm; delivered straight from the oven to my plate, with a sweet almost cornbready flavor. The standard issue open-faced inch-thick Rorschach blot shape had been replaced with a larger and more functional rectangle. It was barely recognizable as what I’d been taught to believe a biscuit had to be.
The only possible way this biscuit could have been improved was by the magic of Chef Mickey’s sausage gravy; a rich, tangy slop loaded with pork and spices that I would gladly have bathed in. I even lamented to my brunching partner that this particular gravy wasn’t available as just-add-water powder, because I would gladly snort rails of it off the toilet lid to maximize its intoxicating effects.
She responded that that was exactly the kind of comment that made her leery of introducing me to her parents.
But when I shoved a forkful in her mouth, she gave her Eggs Jennifer; Spinach, tomato, avocado, poached eggs and hollandaise served on an English Muffin, which she had previously described as her favorite breakfast ever, a sad lamenting look. Or at least she gave the lowly English Muffin usurping valuable real estate on her plate a sad lamenting look, indicating that the sun has set on the English Muffin every bit as much as it has on the Empire.
Within the pantheon of food writing we are often too busy analyzing the vintage of vinos and the foibles of fois gras to dissect the rich nuances of Truck Stop Chic, and we forget that sometimes the simple things really are the best.
Of course the problem with finding a dish so magnificent is that it can often distract you from the rest of the menu when you return looking for another fix, and you can find yourself deep in a menu rut. Which would be sad, as the Red Beans and Grits that came alongside my biscuits and gravy were remarkable in their own right, as was the Eggs Jennifer I snuck several bites of.
But there are two reasons I can’t get the Lucille’s biscuit out of my head.
The first is that it stood head and shoulders above the rest of Lucille’s already great breakfast offerings in the same manner that George Washington stood out amongst the framers of the constitution. They were all great, brilliant and ahead of their time. And somehow, he managed to be even more so. This biscuit could win a war, lead a nation of foodies into a new era of enlightenment, and to keep with the metaphor, is tender enough that a set a false teeth will do you just fine.
The second is that the biscuit isn’t really somewhere one typically looks for greatness. They’re buttermilk, not even vanilla. Forgettable to say the least. The biscuit is rarely regarded as more than a vehicle for gravy.
Honestly, what do you think of when you imagine the biscuit? If you’re British? A cookie. If you’re Humpty Hump of Digital Underground? Testicles.
But if you’re neither of those things, just your average Joe or Josephine Bruncher, then you probably think of a plain white blob of tasteless dough, often with the exterior texture of a cat tongue. You might think of a diamond made of sawdust, or picture the gash it could leave in a sibling’s head if they don’t shut up about the time you crashed you parent’s car, and you flick your wrist just right.
But it’s far more likely you don’t think of the biscuit much at all. Why would you? If it weren’t for the alarming cheapness and amazing hangover curing capacity of slathering them in country gravy, which on average, is possibly the only food with a color and flavor more forgettable than the average biscuit, we might well be singing the Belgian national anthem in some sort of waffle-dominated dystopia.
That such greatness could emerge from the biscuit of all places, is a monumental achievement.
This is not to say that my visit to Lucille’s was without flaw. The servers may have been well-intentioned when they stopped by to check up every ninety seconds, but it felt more like being constantly interrupted, and without the sort of witty banter or bubbly demeanor required to effectively sugarcoat the intrusion. An oversight likely explained by their “I’m in training!” buttons.
Moreover, the large windows and pleasant schemes of the physical space greatly outclass some of the décor, such as the slightly tacky framed Cooking With Jazz poster my aunt hung over her microwave.
I’ve also been told the wait can be quite lengthy on weekends, sometimes up to an hour, which is long enough to put me off any breakfast, even one that promised to pay back my student loans just by eating it.
But these are minor, surface level flaws. The meat, the core of Lucille’s, was solid: Quality ingredients, many of them grown on the café’s own farm, prepared in refreshing combinations, served in a comfortable inviting atmosphere. It’s the kind of place I’d take my mom, my boss, or a date. But if any of them say one word against that heavenly biscuit, they’re walking home.