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Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath on how biscuits and gravy hug your insides

Amelia Meath (left)

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: As one half of electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, Amelia Meath is no stranger to showing affection in subtle, soulful ways. Take “Coffee,” a standout from the band’s self-titled debut album that addresses the complexities of a relationship by highlighting all the granular details—like warm coffee—to create a more detailed image. It’s no surprise then that Meath is able to profess her love for biscuits and gravy in a way that makes them sound transcendental and life-fulfilling. Meath—whose love for biscuits and gravy is as rich as the dish itself—will be appearing at this year’s A.V. Fest, and she’ll likely be at a nearby diner the next morning indulging in biscuits and gravy—perhaps partaking in some coffee, too.


The A.V. Club: What made you pick biscuits and gravy?

Amelia Meath: Biscuits and gravy are very important to me in general. But they’re also a really excellent litmus test for many aspects of a restaurant. One is food quality, and second is carrying the light of humanity. Are you a powder gravy person? Or do you actually make a roux? I do this thing whenever we do go to breakfast, I order it in the instance there is biscuits and gravy on the menu. I’m from the East, so I only discovered that biscuits and gravy existed when I was 18 or 19. I still order them whenever they’re on the menu just because they’re still a novelty item and they’re my favorite thing.

AVC: What exposed you to them at that age? Was it just something you had heard about and finally got around to trying?

AM: I was on a road trip, looking at colleges, and we got into the South and I met biscuits and gravy for the first time.


AVC: And it just changed your world?

AM: It really did. Biscuits and gravy are so good. It’s exactly what you want. It’s salty. It’s perfect for the morning time with one scrambled egg on it. Wowee. When they’re good, they’re the best. The problem is that I order them even if I know they’re going to be bad.


AVC: So if you’re at a Waffle House…

AM: Oh yeah. I’ve eaten so much Waffle House biscuits and gravy. And even worse, I order them, and then I order a different breakfast to also eat, because I know the biscuits and gravy are going to be bad. But I just want to see, because you never know. Sometimes they could be amazing.


AVC: You said that biscuits and gravy is a litmus test. What makes a restaurant pass?

AM: For me, the biscuits are completely second fiddle. It’s all about the gravy for me. But biscuits themselves have to be—when I make them, I try and give them as many layers as possible. So you can’t touch the butter too much. You have to be very specific and pretend the butter is hot coals and flick it around to make the butter tiny, and then you roll it four or five times. Then you get a good, thick biscuit. Also, about baking, you cut all the biscuits and then you’ve got to shove them all in the same direct area, so they’re crowding each other, and that makes them rise more, I found.


AVC: You have a rather intricate system for making biscuits. How did you find a recipe and start doing it yourself?

AM: My mom and dad taught me. I was home at some point, and we were in the kitchen and I had Mom, who was a baker, teach me how to make biscuits, and then I had Dad, who’s a really good cook, teach me how to make gravy. He wanted me to use chicken stock, but I don’t use chicken stock.


AVC: Is your homemade biscuits and gravy recipe your favorite? Can you even pick a favorite?

AM: I can’t. And that’s good, because I can’t eat too much biscuits and gravy. I need to avoid it, because I don’t want to ruin it. So I only eat biscuits and gravy when I’m on tour. Unless I really, really need biscuits and gravy. There’s not many good places to get them in Durham, except for Pie Pushers. At Pie Pushers, they make pretty good biscuits and gravy. The biscuits are very good. Rise also has some pretty good sausage gravy. And the biscuits are quite good. I like to eat the biscuits and gravy sitting down, so Pie Pushers is kind of a bummer because the biscuits and gravy are really good, but I’m always walking around the farmers’ market eating them. And then at Rise, they’re in a sandwich. That’s cheating.


AVC: What do you pair with it? Do you use hot sauce, or are you a purist about it?

AM: A lightly scrambled egg, definitely, and I mix them in with the gravy.

AVC: A classic preparation.

AM: Pretty classic, yeah. I’m sure I could get into hot sauce if I wanted to enter it into the game, but at the moment, I’m so content.


AVC: Do you like other dishes that are gravy-based, like poutine, or are you not generally into gravy?

AM: I love chicken potpie, which, to me, is in a similar realm. You’ve got the delicious chicken gravy in it, and some potpie has biscuit in the crust. That’s how I make it.


AVC: Is there a city or a region that really excels at it? Because it’s traditionally Southern…

AM: I recently started trying to take photos of all the biscuits and gravy I eat so that I can remember where I was and what I was doing. Quite honestly, biscuits and gravy just looks like biscuits and gravy. You can’t tell if it’s good or not good by a photo, whether it’s real or not real. Fake, powder gravy is like grape flavor: You know it’s supposed to be grape, so you accept it as grape, but it’s not. It doesn’t taste anything like grape. It’s the same with powder gravy. So you eat it and you’re like, for some reason, that is called the same thing that has delicious pork sausage in it, but really, it’s just gnarled gunk.


AVC: Do you have a memory of a really good experience eating biscuits and gravy, or a bad one where it felt like an insult to everything you love?

AM: Nick and I were on tour. We were up in the Pacific Northwest somewhere, and there was a diner called the Blackbird Diner, I think. It’s sort of a chain, but only in the Pacific Northwest, so I thought we needed to try it. We go and the menu’s real kind of New York diner style where they have, like, everything ever, including tacos that no one should ever eat. I ordered the biscuits and gravy, and I just knew they were going to be real. They even talked about how home-cooked their shit was. They had real jam that they had made there. I thought, “Oh, they’re actually going to make biscuits and gravy.” And I got it. I ordered it, it was three in the afternoon, I got it just because I knew it was going to be good. They arrived. And it was so bad. And I cried.


AVC: Seriously?

AM: Seriously.

AVC: That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.

AM: It was okay, it was great—Nick was really, really supportive. It was just, like, I really needed food, I was right at the perfect point in my PMS to cry over food, which pretty much happens every time. It was really funny, because I was crying into the biscuits and gravy while I was eating them. It was just like when you make a new friend and you assign all of these amazing qualities to that new friend and then you go out to get sushi with them and then all they order is white rice, because they’re a wuss. That’s what it’s like. You’re like, “Oh no, you’re not as cool as I thought you were. You’re actually kind of a wimp.” That’s what it’s like when you get bad biscuits and gravy. It’s like, “Oh no, I had made this commitment to you, restaurant, and you failed me.”


AVC: Was it bad enough for you to swear the place off?

AM: No, no! That’s the other thing: After the initial sadness of, “Man, you just really aren’t upholding the light of humanity by making good food,” I’ll still go to the place. They still make scrambled eggs. Waffle House makes the worst biscuits and gravy in the world, and I go there all the time on tour.


AVC: What about the inverse? Have you had some sort of magically uplifting experience with them?

AM: I have this crew of 12 insane women that I’m lucky enough to have in my life as friends. We used to have these epic brunches where we would make—I would make both popovers and biscuits—and pancakes and gigantic salads and we’d get champagne and so many different kinds of bacon. They’re all farmers, so the myriad of deliciousness was wild. Blue eggs, that’s their thing—they used to do that every Saturday morning when I lived in Bennington, Vermont. The really sick ones were with popovers and biscuits. And champagne.


AVC: How would you describe to someone–someone like the 18-year-old you that never had biscuits and gravy before–that biscuits and gravy is such an amazing thing?

AM: It depends on what kind of person I was describing it to. If it was someone who really loved food, that would be a totally different description than if it was a 7-year-old person. I suppose I would just explain exactly what biscuits and gravy were. And then I would say, “It’s like having someone hug all your insides at the same time.” I think I might say that to everyone: Biscuits and gravy hug your insides.


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