Greg Baker, chef-owner of the Refinery in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon and Austin before opening his James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in 2010.
I don’t know if chicken biscuits are the new avocado toast or avocado toast is the new chicken biscuit, but the damn things are everywhere. We can take some relief in the knowledge that sooner or later the dining public is going to realize that they can make toast and spread avocado on it at home, and this piece of novelty will go gently into that dark night. Considering the work and mess it takes to make biscuits and fry chicken, on the other hand, the safe bet on that combo is “not so much.” The masses will not wake up one day and take a stand that henceforth, they’re going to make their own chicken biscuits. But has the time come for us — as cooks and restaurant owners — to say enough?
I’m not hating on the chicken biscuits themselves at all. At some point during every road trip, I’ll get hangry and start scanning the blue signs at every exit for the Chick-fil-A logo. When I spy it, I’ll audibly sigh, silently apologize to every single one of my LGBTQ friends (and even some that I don’t know, just for extra penance) and point my car toward that red-and-white sign. In 10 minutes, I’m back on the road, savoring the crappy biscuit, the chemical-laden pickle brine that flavors the horrible commodity chicken, and the awesome texture of crisp-for-hours-after-it-comes-out-of-the-fryer that can only be achieved via a lengthy process in a laboratory. But when all is said and done, that shit is good. You cannot argue that fact.
Everyone and their freaking brother are making the things nowadays. It matters not if you’re in Brooklyn or Tampa; they are omnipresent, from celebrity chef–owned restaurants to fast-food chains. Some are fantastic, many are mediocre and still more suck, but people just keep buying them with some kind of fanaticism that I fail to understand completely. People will line up for hours to get a biscuit at the hot new chicken joint. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good or not — it’s a freakin’ chicken biscuit, and people need that biscuit like it’s mother’s milk.
So when exactly did these things infiltrate the fabric of the American dining consciousness?
“It doesn’t even matter if it’s good or not — it’s a freakin’ chicken biscuit, and people need that biscuit like it’s mother’s milk.”
Sometime shortly after the Civil War, breakfast sandwiches appeared in the American food consciousness. Whether on a bagel, a hard roll, an English muffin or the poor man’s Southern biscuit, leftovers from supper found their way onto a piece of leftover bread and a portable breakfast was easily eaten while moving from home to work. One hundred thirty years later, fast food took the idea and ran with it, particularly for drive-through customers. The clear winner in this is the chicken biscuit (I’m guessing that the reason behind that is because no one is going to try to eat avocado toast while driving). The aforementioned fast-food chain, Chick-fil-A, added its chicken biscuit in the Day-Glo-heavy year of 1986. Others followed suit into the 1990s. My wife, a proud, self-proclaimed modern Southerner with a lineage dating back to the 1700s, assures me her family was preparing and eating chicken biscuits since as far back as her great-grandmother could remember. She tells me, “There were always biscuits. There was always fried chicken. It was easy.”
Has fast food driven a fad that has expanded into full-service restaurants or have the Southern traditions influenced a dining nation?
In the end, food is the great equalizer; it brings people from all backgrounds and ethnicities to a common arena. Squabbles are put aside, fences of difference fall, a joy of commonality tends to prevail when food is on the table. Maybe it’s a good thing that people feel that they become honorary Southerners by mowing down a gluten overload. But is a piece of chicken on a biscuit the best that America can use to say, “Hey neighbor, look, we’re all the same — I like food, too?”
In the interest of full disclosure, there is a chicken biscuit on the menu at my Southern-influenced restaurant, Fodder & Shine. Its sole purpose was to provide a cheap bar snack to keep customers in their seats and get them to order another drink. We put a lot of work into ours: We brine the chicken and then marinate it in buttermilk; the biscuits are made fresh daily; we make our own jam; we even make the damn mayonnaise (mahonesa, to be historically correct). By no means was it ever intended to be an entrée. Maybe an appetizer, definitely something to soak up whiskey, but never was this intended to be a $6 “one and done” plate. Yet every week, I review the sales reports and right there at the top of the list as the no. 1 seller is that freakin’ chicken biscuit. And yes, every once in a while, I am eating that very chicken biscuit while I read those weekly reports. But I’m not conceding without a fight.