A deep peace descended upon us as we entered our favorite restaurant in nearby Ellsworth, Maine. We studied the booths: only a few moments' wait while the maitre d' cleaned off the table. I cast my eyes over the breads and noted with joy a small pyramid of biscuits. "Biscuits," I murmured, and my wife, Elaine, followed my gaze.
"Biscuits," I said again, but her attention was focused on our table.
"It's ready," she said. And we slid into our seats.
"Biscuits," I said, beaming, as the waitress approached with the water pitcher.
"Yes," she said. "Alex felt like making them and so they're here – to go with the beef stew."
"Could you heat up one of those biscuits for me, please?" I asked Lisa, our waitress.
"They're fresh from the oven," she replied.
"Well, pop them in again for a minute, will you? I like them steaming hot."
"I'm afraid heating them would compromise the integrity of the biscuit," she said.
"The integrity of the biscuit?" I looked over at Elaine. She was smiling, but otherwise offering no assistance.
It had happened before: Once in a fancy Italian place in Boston, the waiter explained to Elaine that cheese with shrimp was "not permitted" (even though linguine was involved). Another time, in Italy, I tried to get the waitress to understand that what I wanted was butter – not olive oil – on my bread.
"Alex is quite fussy about his work," Lisa said of the chef. "They're probably still warm." And off she went.
"And some butter," I called.
She brought us each a biscuit along with some butter, but when she later got back to us to take our order she said, "If it really is important to you, I'll heat up the biscuits."
"Thank you," I said.
That biscuit was warm. I chipped off a bit of frozen butter. (The restaurant usually served olive oil.) The biscuit was infinitely better than cold, though it was hardly "perfect." But, then, I was spoiled. Ever since I was 13 and we had a cook named Eileen, "Eileen biscuits" were the gold standard. And I've never tasted one since.
"Eileen biscuits" were the size of silver dollars and almost as thin, but so soft at their centers that when you slid a knife into their sides the two halves popped apart like bivalves, the steam would puff out, the delicate aroma of biscuit would flood your nostrils; and by the time you had prepared, say, four of them, the butter would have melted in the last one, and you would be halfway through your second, hand poised to grab two more.
The restaurant biscuit was doughy. There wasn't a hint of flakiness. It wasn't hot, hardly even warm. The butter just sat there, not melting at all. When the salad came, in frustration, I poured a little of the dressing onto a piece of biscuit. The olive oil permeated it, moistening it and at the same time releasing its fragrance. I took a tentative bite: that touch of basil, delicious. Not an "Eileen biscuit" but something else. A biscuit for the mature palette, perhaps?
"Taste?" I asked, holding up a morsel.
But Elaine had already dipped hers. "Shall I send compliments to the chef or will you?" she asked. "Tell Lisa how much we liked them when you pay the bill. And explain to her that the integrity of the biscuit was not, after all, ever really compromised."