My lunch in the clubhouse up at Roaring Gap had been staid and sober, never boring but full of earnest, intellectualized discussions of course renovation and a round just completed on the charming Donald Ross design visible out the window. I’d been in North Carolina only 24 hours. I was about to set out from the state’s north-central highlands for the western outpost of Asheville. When there came a brief lull in the conversation, I cut to the chase: So, gentlemen, what’s this Biscuitville place? Worth a visit?
The tenor of our discussion was swiftly transformed.
“Well, you gotta go to Biscuitville,” my host said, his soft drawl getting more pronounced. He set down his flatware and dabbed with a napkin each corner of his mouth. “Great biscuits. The best you’ll find at a restaurant chain. I’m partial to their turkey sausage biscuit.”
Each member of our party quickly followed up with his own ringing endorsement. Biscuitville, I learned, is a regional institution, a drive-thru breakfast chain whose analog for New Englanders like myself is probably Dunkin Donuts. Only biscuit-based. One won’t find any Biscuitville franchises in Asheville, however. In the chicken & biscuit category, that’s Bojangles country — on account of the fact that Biscuitville, a family-run operation, has opted not to expand willy nilly, or even outside east/central North Carolina. But the overarching point was clear: The larger culture here is quite unimaginable without biscuits. Or so my hosts explained.
I had seen the signs for Biscuitville on I-40, one of the many cultural clues I’d gathered while driving west from Raleigh the day before. You can learn a lot about a place from its signage, from its junk-food terroir, from its indigenous leisure options. Every 10 miles or so, I’d been struck by yet another town name that recalled cigarette brands, or country/bluegrass lyrics, or storied NASCAR venues, or movies like the estimable Last American Hero.
All week these whiffs of southern iconography and the images/memories they spurred breezed into my consciousness and out again: Martinsville. Wilkesboro. Hickory… Johnson City, TENNESSEE! Driving through Winston-Salem, I passed the Winston Cup Series museum and experienced a multi-faceted hunk of NC-enabled nostalgia: Cale Yarborough dueling Davey Allison one of those Saturday afternoons from my youth — all of it brought home by my friends at R.J. Reynolds.
I had dared fly into RDU during a relative lull in last year’s pandemic summer, to visit with my son, Silas, who lives in Chapel Hill and had just turned 24. His work for the Conservation Corps of North Carolina takes him all over the state. Golfers visiting Tar Heel country normally make the pilgrimage to Pinehurst, but this trip would be something quite a bit different. I was due to meet Silas in Asheville, after my game at Roaring Gap.
It’s a long way from east to west down Tobacco Road, 9 hours end to end. Driving the nation’s interstate highways, we Americans are treated to all manner of advertising tropes, commercial entities, and place names that never fail to register with first-time visitors. Dinkins Bottom Road. Gumberry. Frying Pan Landing. Kill Devil Hills. Silas Creek just happens to run through the Old Town Club, and beside the Krispy Kreme headquarters there in Winston-Salem.
Across this great nation, car dealers now routinely place themselves — and their family members — at the center of local advertising campaigns. Approaching Greensboro from the east, I was introduced to Cox Toyota via the smiling face of a 12-year-old girl, fully 30 feet high. “Before You Buy,” she advised travelers, in small letters, before the big message exploded across the full breadth of the billboard, “WHY NOT GIVE COX A TRY?”