Sweet Tea & Chickadee, Emmarentia
By Anna Trapido, 27 October 2020
There are many things that I don’t understand about Americans. Some of those things are super scary. Especially this week. Others are just odd. Top of my list of disconcerting but not dangerous American idiosyncrasies is why the thing that they call a biscuit is not one.
In my world, a biscuit is a flat, unleavened, sweet treat but ask any American and they will say that what I am describing is a cookie. In the USA, especially in the southern states, a biscuit refers to a savoury, buttery, baked dough, side starch with well-defined layers that flake apart.
Adding to my confusion is the iconic American breakfast combo of ‘biscuits and gravy’ which I would argue is neither. I think of a ‘gravy’ as a sauce made with meat juices but in this parallel universe gravy is a sort of roux-based creamy mélange with minced sausage bits in it. Food historians suggest that the use of these terms and the concept go back as early as the Revolutionary War (aka the US War of Independence). As with many foods that are now popular across all income levels, the biscuits and gravy mélange was born of frugality, poverty and necessity. Since then, biscuits have risen (literally and metaphorically). The dish is now feted on breakfast menus all over America – especially in Southern states where the lightness of the flour is credited for the regionally superior biscuit texture. They are also immortalized in song, and officially celebrated three times a year: National Biscuits and Gravy Day is observed on 21 February and 2 December and National Biscuits and Gravy Week is the second week of September.
Those wishing to explore epicurean origins should seek out Sara Roahen and John T. Edge’s fantastic Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook (University of Mississippi press, 2015). Those who just want to eat some should head for Sweet Tea & Chickadee in Emmarentia, Johannesburg.
Tables are widely spaced and ceilings are high at Sweet Tea & Chickadee. This gives the venue a light, airy, reassuringly social distanced vibe. South African chef-patron Natasha Robson-Lovato and her American husband Jason missed his family’s southern states cooking and figured that if they had a hankering for biscuits they might be able to interest others in them too. And so, their charming bistro was born.
To my inexperienced eye, the biscuits at Sweet Tea & Chickadee looked like what I call scones (such as English ladies might serve with jam and cream) but their texture was completely different. English-style scones have much finer, more cake-like crumb than the flaky pastry mouthfeel of these American biscuits. I am hesitant to use scones as a comparison because that opens up a whole different can of worms – anyone who has ever been to a South African township funeral knows that in kasi culinary culture scones (also known as Potchefstrooms) arrive at events by the bucket load and are a flatter, doughier baked item. They are in fact much more like what Americans call a biscuit…
The biscuits at Sweet Tea & Chickadee were tender but not fragile which allowed them to support a hearty helping of scrambled egg and the aforementioned rich, creamy (with hints of nutmeg) ‘gravy’ without becoming squashed or sodden (R75). Biscuits are not only breakfast food. I opted for the aforementioned early morning classic combo but it was actually lunchtime and my date topped her biscuit with a piece of greaseless, golden-crusted fried chicken. The exterior flaked and perfectly shattered into shards at tooth touch. The interior meat was moist and flavoursome. The drizzle of jalapeno honey gave this dish a sweet, savoury, soft, crunchy 360 degree eating experience (R85). My son is not a biscuit boy so he ordered and enjoyed the shrimp and soft, buttery soft porridge/polenta-like grits (R129).
After the biscuits and grits, we were full but a slice of pineapple, rum upside-down cake called to us anyway. So we shared it (R50). And very fine it was too. There is plenty of booze in the cake but none on the drinks menu. No liquor license meant no wine to wash down our lunch but there were lovely cordials and lemonade made with real lemons to cut through the rich Southern scoff.
African American chef and culinary historian Michael Twitty recently tweeted that: “If there is one true expression of Southern love on a plate, it’s homemade buttermilk biscuits and gravy!” Let’s hope he is right. We could all do with some love at the moment…
Sweet Tea & Chickadee: 083-712-4805; 3 Levubu Road Emmarentia, Johannesburg. Open Wednesday to Sunday 8am – 5pm; Sweeteachickadee.co.za