COLUMN: Biscuits as big as a cat’s head pair well with gravy made for lumberjacks

By Candace Nelson - 5:32 PM


My latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail is all about cathead biscuits and sawmill gravy.

Biscuits are the flaky foundation of a southern meal, upon which flavor is built.

Or, are they meant to be fluffy? Buttery? Savory? Sweet? Buttermilk? Dropped? Rolled?

Biscuits are a diverse foodstuff. And everyone has a preference. I’ve previously written about how they can be topped with tomato gravy or chocolate gravy, as well as my own personal favorite topping from childhood: creamed turkey.

Despite the variations and proclivities, there is one biscuit dish that all Appalachians can agree is integral to the region’s food culture: biscuits & gravy.

The breakfast staple consists of golden brown biscuits topped with a white gravy made of milk, flour, crumbled sausage and pan drippings.

Biscuits and gravy in some form could date back to the Revolutionary War, but the beginnings of the dish as we know it likely started in southern Appalachia in the late 1800s.

Then, the biscuits were made to be simple and sturdy; big dollops of biscuit dough were pulled and dropped onto a baking sheet. Those clumps of buttery dough are as big as a cat’s head - hence the name “cathead” biscuit.

These were born out of necessity. They are quick to make but built to last all day in a lunch pail or pocket. These durable biscuits were a precursor to the layered and fluffy ones common today.

To soften up the biscuits to be more palatable and create a more filling breakfast, which was important for laborers, people began topping the biscuits with sausage gravy. The gravy is also called “sawmill” gravy, as lumber was one of the main industries in the region and the meal was a cheap, calorie-dense way for sawmill workers to fuel their hard labor throughout the day.

Biscuits and gravy began as a humble, regional meal - like many meals in Appalachia - made to fill hungry tummies with cheap ingredients and power an industry.

The dish has evolved and spread to diners and restaurants across the country. Its roots, though, pay homage to the hardworking folks who used their resourcefulness and creativity to create flavors that we still enjoy today.

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