Ode to the Fluffiest Biscuit

By  Jim Ruland |  July 24, 2014
Photograph by Jim Ruland Photograph by Jim Ruland

In 1925, H. L. Mencken coined the phrase “Bible Belt” to reflect the prevalence of Evangelical Christian Protestants in the Southeastern United States. The Bible Belt stretches from Central Virginia to Northern Florida to Eastern Texas to Southern Missouri, and its boundaries are commensurate with those of the Biscuit Belt: that region of America where a hungry person can sit down in any diner or restaurant at any time of day or night and order a plate of biscuits and gravy. Not coincidentally, the Biscuit Belt is also the place where you’ll find the greatest concentration of Hardee’s’ two thousand restaurants. Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is the Buckle of the Biscuit Belt, because that’s where the first Hardee’s restaurant opened, and Greenville is just a short drive from the Hardee’s in Radford, Virginia, where I worked part-time as a midnight cook in the early ’90s. It was here, I maintain, that the most perfect specimen of biscuit was created nightly by an extraordinary woman named Dot.

Dot was the single person on the graveyard shift we couldn’t do without. Anybody could plop a frozen patty on the grill or punch numbers into a cash register, but biscuit-making was Dot’s art. Not a fine art, granted, but one that was beyond the level of unskilled labor that none of us—not Mike the drive-through drug dealer, nor Susie the nympho cashier, nor Bobby the line cook, nor Mindy the maternal night manager, and certainly not I, the starving student who worked the grill on weekend nights—could hope to replicate.

Our restaurant was located down the street from Radford University in the Southwestern part of the state and we were #2 in the region with after-midnight sales, second only to a Hardee’s on the Virginia Tech campus up the road in Blacksburg. The store sat at the end of a block of bars on the way back to campus. As there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the New River Valley after closing time, the students came to Hardee’s to sober up on the breakfast biscuit sandwiches that are the staple of the Southern alcohol enthusiast’s diet. The Radford Hardee’s was busier from midnight to two AM than any other time of day. One of my roommates during this period, a finance major from Roanoke named Fat Sammy, was fond of saying, “You’re not going home alone if you’ve got a fluffy biscuit in your hand!”

Radford was something of a party school back in those days (it had been an all-girls teachers’ college way back when, and the male-to-female ratio was still favorably skewed), but I was no longer a partier. I’d given up the bottle to focus on my studies. Prior to college, I’d served a stint in the U.S. Navy—where every enlisted man takes a hundred-day turn in the galley—so working the graveyard shift in a fast-food restaurant did not seem that unusual to me. I worked with an odd collection of felons, thieves, dope smokers, and guys who liked to show up for work tripping on acid. It was like being in the Navy all over again. Hardee's helped me earn a little extra dough—no pun intended—during those long lapses between checks from the Veteran’s Administration. I also got a significant discount on food, not counting what I wolfed down during my trips to the dumpster, plus all the coffee I could drink. In many ways, it was the best job I ever had, which is another way of saying that it was a lot better than the Navy.

Most people underestimate the complexity of the biscuit. Biscuits are delicate and fickle, like hothouse flowers. Cook them too long and they turn into tough little hockey pucks. If the temperature in the oven isn’t high enough, you get a texture that’s cakey, not flaky, and a biscuit without a swirling engine of steam inside it is no longer a biscuit but a bastard scone. Even something as seemingly insignificant as kneading the flour too long can ruin the recipe. Biscuits require scrupulous care and consistency, yet the most important aspects of the process can’t be measured. They require magicians, not technicians, and Dot was a wizard with water and flour, a sorceress with salt and butter. She understood that biscuits are the crack cocaine of the Southern churchgoer, the golden sponges the college kids use to soak up the booze in their bellies. Without Dot, we might as well have been working at McDonald’s, and we were not McDonald’s people, at least not since they started screening their employees with background checks.

Biscuit-making is messy as hell, which is why they are anathema to the fast-food enterprise. They require their own special ovens to cook them quick and hot, but biscuits cannot be micromanaged the way one would a box of frozen hamburger patties or a five-gallon bucket of fry oil. How does one standardize a pinch of salt? A scosh of butter? How was one supposed to keep track of the fistfuls of flour that Dot threw all over the place? Dot didn’t wear the Hardee’s uniform the rest of us wore. She wore a white t-shirt and hat, and an apron crusted with flour. She had her own nook in the kitchen, far from the fryers and the grills, away from the deep freeze and cold storage where Susie and Bobby went at it every night. The biscuit-making area was its own fiefdom within the restaurant, and Dot was its queen.

Dot was not a prideful person, but she cared about her biscuits. “Cooked hot, served hot,” she liked to say. If we let her biscuits get cold on the shelf or hard under the heat lamps, she’d make us throw them away. If we got slammed and ran out of biscuits, she’d curse Bobby and me out for not letting her know sooner. No one liked to see Dot upset. If Dot’s standards were higher than Hardee’s, that was okay with us for it had a trickle-down effect that carried over to the way we grilled the hexagon-shaped patties, flipped the eggs, toasted the buns, and wrapped the sandwiches. Demand for our product was high, we reasoned, because the food was good. Dot wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dot was quiet, intensely private, a brooder. She did not open up to the rest of us. She didn’t know how. She lived in subsidized housing and had a boyfriend who gave her a lot of trouble, but that was all anyone knew. She was hard to read, her moods impossible to gauge. I performed ninja routines with the spatulas, took batting practice with her rolling pin and tomatoes, switched Mindy’s coffee with decaf so we could watch her get grumpier and grumpier as the night wore endlessly on—whatever it took to make her laugh. Dot wasn’t pretty, but she was hot in a distressed-damsel kind of way. She was missing a tooth on the right side of her mouth and would hide her smile even when she was happy. I secretly loved her for that.

At the end of my shift early Sunday morning, I usually ordered a plate of biscuits and gravy. Most night-shift workers ordered their food to go, as they couldn’t get out of the store fast enough. I preferred to dine in. I selected a biscuit, prepared my plate, and pushed it down the line so that it would be there when I ordered it. Then I sat down in one of the swivel chairs and enjoyed the biscuits Dot had created. Sometimes she saw me eating in the restaurant and waved as she went through the door, disguising her smile even though there was no one else in the store to see it but me.

The customers were the worst part of the job. They made rude remarks in the squawk box at the drive-through. (We never did anything to their food, except once, but he was a freckle-faced cop whom everyone—even the other cops—hated because he used to work in the pound putting dogs and cats to sleep.) The drunken boys, sensing the depths of Susie's need, made inappropriate jokes. The girls were the worst. They dressed like sluts and acted like snobs. To them we were poor, undereducated townies. I stayed in the back during the rush. Even though their behavior made me ashamed of belonging to their class of enormous privilege, I was embarrassed to be seen in my Hardee’s uniform.

I got along with everyone in the restaurant. Mike set me up with his friends, day-shift workers and high-school girls. Mindy defended me whenever the day manager got on my ass for my weekly uniform violations. Bobby showed me the ins and outs of being a fry cook with the intensity of a sensei instructing an acolyte. We attended to our duties with a pseudo-solemnity that would not be out of place at the Ritz Carlton. Customers were “Ladies and Gentlemen"; a cup of soda was a carbonated beverage. For all of our needless formality, Bobby couldn’t understand why I called him Robert. “That’s what it says on your birth certificate,” I said. “No it don’t” he insisted. “It says Bobby.” Only Dot was distant, aloof, as unknowable as an atoll in the South Pacific where there were no colleges, no people, and no biscuits.

We all knew Dot was having man trouble, and when she came in with a shiner and a clutch of Kleenex in her raw, red fist, we knew her problems had turned into something else. Mindy guided Dot into her tiny office and tried to get her to cry it out, but Dot was just as full of fury when she emerged ten minutes later. Dot's biscuits that night were hot and salty and burned my fingers as I pulled them apart. Mindy didn’t want her to be left alone in the biscuit-prep area, but whenever Dot tried to help us out in the kitchen she scalded herself with fry oil or broke something in the deep sink. We kept telling her to take it easy, but she wouldn’t listen. Sometime during the rush, when the drunken college students I no longer identified with came crashing into the store and lined up a dozen deep at the counter, Dot put on the metal glove and started cleaning the meat slicer.

I was the one who saw it happen. I’d just pressed the plate down on a dozen hamburger patties and saw Dot’s glove catch. Through a cloud of moist, meaty steam I watched the blood spurt from her index finger as the spinning blade filleted it.

Mindy took Dot to the hospital for stitches. I forget how many, but it was a lot. Mike, easily the most intelligent and hard-working jerk in the store, took charge. Later Susie took charge of Mike in her chilly boudoir. Bobby got really quiet, wouldn’t talk to me after the rush. I made a bacon mustache and goose-stepped around the store until I slipped on something by the meat slicer. Grease or gravy or something else. We were always in danger of losing our footing in that terrible place.

Later, in the morning, Mike, Bobby, and I smoked a joint behind the dumpsters, the stink of the grease trap came on stronger and stronger as the spliff got smaller and smaller. Like millions of food-service professionals around the world, we watched the sun come up and felt okay about it. That morning when I got home, my food stink was so pervasive my dog barked at me in terror as I shuffled through the door. He wasn’t able to recognize my scent. It didn’t matter what I thought I was: college student, fast-food worker, neither or both. My dog knew what I was: a Hardee's man to the core.

Then everything fell apart. Thunderstorms rolled through the New River Valley each afternoon and ravaged the campus, downing power lines, knocking down tree limbs. A lot of college students stuck around for the summer session. The students partied every night of the week and the restaurant was busier than ever. Dissension crept into the ranks. Mindy pulled double duty as manager and biscuit-maker. She seemed crankier than usual and the biscuits weren’t the same. None of us were. Bobby and Susie stopped talking, and Mike started dipping into his own stash, looking sketchier by the day. We missed Dot and her unspoken quest for perfection. Maybe the others didn’t see it that way, but I did.

During one unusually slow night, which I spent sitting on a bucket, drinking coffee, and reading Camus’s The Stranger, a fight broke out in the lobby. One of the locals got jumped in the parking lot by three brothers who claimed their victim had beaten up one of their cousins. The dude ran into the store, and the shit-kickers followed. They stomped on him with their boots right in front of the cashiers. Mindy called the cops while Bobby restrained me from jumping over the counter. “You don’t want to get involved in that,” he said knowingly. When it was over, Susie was sobbing and Bobby and Mike argued over who should console her. Mindy passed out free biscuits to the horrified customers while I mopped up the blood.

Bobby said it wasn’t nothing compared to the time a busload of black basketball players pulled off the highway just as the Motor Mile Speedway let out. The ballers came in one door, the speed freaks came in the other, and a riot broke out in the middle of the store. 

Dot took a few weeks off but came back after the shiner had healed to show us her stitches. She laughed off the accident, or tried to anyway, but there was just too much sadness underneath. Everyone is beautiful when they smile, but there was something even more devastating about Dot trying not to.

Toward the end of my run at Hardee’s, something funny happened to me. I was taking classes during the summer, trying to graduate before my VA money ran out. I stopped hanging out with friends from school and started spending more time with my coworkers, usually immediately after we got off work. We’d sit around, smoke some cigarettes, wait for the sun to come up. In college, everyone was obsessed with the future: the next test, the following semester, the real world that breathlessly awaited them. It all seemed so unreal and impalpable. The life of a food-service professional is as real as real gets. There isn’t anything more real than a bloody mop, a gashed finger, a used condom frozen to the cold-storage floor. We talked about the future, too—especially when we were high—but not in a way that discounted the present and all its raging realness. What did we talk about? I don’t remember, but every time I bite into a biscuit from Hardee's, I think of the old graveyard crew and try to imagine where in the world they might be.