Elmo's Diner, North Carolina, USA
9th St. Shopping District.
776 9th Street
Durham, NC 27705
by Joyce Carol Oats
Growing up north of the Mason-Dixon line, you hear rumours about what goes on beneath it. Sometimes you develop prejudices. For example, when I arrived in Durham, North Carolina, a former tobacco town, I had a very strong prejudice in favour of southern cuisine. How could I not? Buttermilk fried chicken. Red velvet cupcake. Southern Living magazine.
Some southern specialties have migrated north. Some have not. For my first Durham breakfast, I wanted one thing: biscuits and sausage gravy.
‘Biscuits and gravy?’ said Companion Primatologist, a vegetarian. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I am sure,’ I said. ‘Don’t you know that I am a culinary adventurer?'
‘Sure,’ said CP. ‘Right. I’ll have the blueberry pancakes.’
In retrospect, my reaction to the biscuits and gravy is somewhat surprising because, really, what did I actually expect? Scones with some kind of sausagey brown sauce? Right. What was set in front of me instead (with a side of grits, natch) was a plate covered in a white substance with small brown chunks in it. Newsflash: sausage gravy is sort of a thick, viscous roux with small chunks of sausage floating in it.
‘This looks disgusting,’ I said to CP.
‘These pancakes are delicious,’ CP said.
I prodded one of the white sauce-clad lumps with a fork. It did a slight wobble. So did my bottom lip.
How best to describe the flavour of a sausage-gravy covered-biscuit without comparing it to infant sick? I’m not sure.
Here, instead, are some other key facts: the grits were good (buttery, gritty). CP’s pancakes were fluffy and sweet. The atmosphere was lovely - lots of nice jolly Americans starting their days with big, hearty plates. The coffee was refilled frequently, in those nice thick indestructible white American diner mugs (you can buy your own, and thank goodness for that). I still love buttermilk fried chicken and red velvet cake and Southern Living.
It was also the first time I have ever gone out for breakfast and not finished my food.