Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, Lauren Oyler interrogates what it means for something to truly be West Virginian.
hen I was 11 years old, I participated in the only pageant I would ever participate in, and I did not win. It was not a beauty pageant, but some kind of West Virginia state pride showcase, girls only, held at a hotel in the capital, Charleston. Contestants were separated into two age groups and competed in areas that included a multiple-choice exam, a group dance routine or musical sequence the style of which I cannot remember, and an on-stage interview. For this last part, we picked questions out of a bag or hat or were randomly assigned them by the judges. I was asked, basically: Where would you take someone from out of town who was visiting the great state of West Virginia, almost heaven, where mountaineers are always free?
Even with West Virginia’s years-long tourism campaign—there are mountains on which to hike or ski or enjoy vistas, rivers on which to whitewater raft, and a Southernly hospitable resort where 26 presidents have vacationed and you can partake in "tasteful" gambling—not many people visit from out of town. I don’t remember what I said in the pageant, but when the question of what to do with a visitor comes up now, I bypass most of these attractions and suggest a trip to a Tudor’s Biscuit World. Despite the fact that the chain has sprawled 70 locations into the neighboring states (and, weirdly, Panama City, Florida), and despite the fact that it doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with West Virginia, food-wise, I consider the restaurant—which West Virginians call, simply, "Tudor’s"—a truly West Virginian thing.
A regional cuisine might be based on sociopolitical history or entrepreneurial coincidence; Tudor’s is an eyeballed mixture of both. Like other "Southern food," biscuits seem to make sense in West Virginia, but they did not arise, greasy and culturally relevant, from the proud hills of Appalachia.
here are other traditions I might be proud of for being West Virginian that I don’t feel right laying claim to: bluegrass; quilting; college sports; flowery descriptions of honest landscapes; hiking, skiing, whitewater rafting. People sometimes ask me why I don’t write about West Virginia—the implication being that, just as I benefited from it on my college applications, I might benefit from it professionally. Any of these topics might make for a rich, descriptive essay, they say. Unfortunately, this would feel disingenuous, because I didn’t like living there, or any of these topics.
Tudor’s biscuits, however, I have eaten, and enjoyed. While the Tudor’s menu also includes lunchtime hamburgers and breakfast platters, the draw is its biscuit sandwiches, many of which have quirky names that are common knowledge among even infrequent customers. The Mary B (bacon, egg, and cheese) is one of the most popular; like the Ron (sausage, egg, and cheese), it’s named after a regular customer from the original Huntington location. All the biscuits named after West Virginia college sports teams—the Golden Eagle (Canadian bacon, potato, egg, and cheese); the Mountaineer (country ham, potato, egg, and cheese); and the Thundering Herd (sausage, potato, egg, and cheese)—seem appropriate only for athletic appetites. The Mickey (Canadian bacon, egg, and melted cheese) I’ve never seen anyone order; same for the Rocket (steak, egg, potato, and cheese), which feels ostentatious. There’s also the Duke (bacon, potato, egg, and cheese), a reference to John Wayne; the Miner (bacon, potato, and melted cheese); the Tootie (country ham, egg, and cheese); the Dottie (potato, egg, and cheese); and the Politician (full of bologna, egg, and cheese). The Peppi (pepperoni and melted cheese) is a nod to the pepperoni roll, which Italian immigrants working the coalfields used to pack for lunch, and the apple biscuit works as dessert. All cheese is American. Hours are often from 5:30 AM to 2:00 PM, though some branches now serve dinner.
A regional cuisine might be based on sociopolitical history or entrepreneurial coincidence; Tudor’s is an eyeballed mixture of both. Like other "Southern food," biscuits seem to make sense in West Virginia, but they did not arise, greasy and culturally relevant, from the proud hills of Appalachia. The biscuit as Americans know it emerged in the antebellum South as a descendent of the British biscuit. Called "beaten biscuits," these were thin, circular, cracker-y breads that were usually pricked with a fork. (If you’ve ever heard a British person hanker for a sweet afternoon snack, you’ll know that these are still around today; Brits insist on calling our version, "Oh, like scones?") It was a treat for only the wealthy; flour was expensive, and the biscuit-making process was a very arduous one, involving, in the words of Belinda Ellis, author of the book Biscuits, "bludgeoning the dough…for at least thirty minutes." This was a job for slaves or servants.
Biscuits became both fluffier and more accessible after people discovered ingredients that would help them rise on their own, without yeast; baking soda became commercially available in 1846. A softer wheat, ideal for making biscuits, grows well in southern climates, and in the late 19th century it was sold in 25- or 50-pound cloth sacks that families used to make clothes and quilts. People combined this with the lard readily available from hog raising and the buttermilk from butter churning. Soon, biscuits—which conveniently also required less time in the oven than yeast breads, a blessing in a region that is already baking—were had by all.
"Who invented the biscuit sandwich?" asks a 2009 post on the Tudor’s Biscuit World Facebook page. There is a line break, and then, the reveal: "Arguably, we did, the folks at Tudor’s Biscuit World."
And it really was all. Of Southern life in the first half of the 20th century, John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, writes, "Food was a constant preoccupation." Supplies were limited, and even if you could find them, at the huckster wagon or the mom-and-pop grocery, they cost money, which neither the poor nor the better off really wanted to spend. People were self-sufficient, grew fruit trees, fished, hunted small game, and made hot breads—"to sop up the last bit of gravy or pot likker"—at least once a day. At first this likely meant cornbread, but according to Joe Gray Taylor, whose book Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South is quoted in Egerton’s, by World War II, "a Southerner…could fill many pages in praise of the biscuit." Many families ate them at every meal—but especially breakfast, which became a particular feature of Southern cooking, thanks to the availability of Florida citrus and the popularity of smoked pork products.
While the biscuit sandwich may seem a natural extension of all this, it was a while before the Mary B, etc., appeared. "Who invented the biscuit sandwich?" asks a 2009 post on the Tudor’s Biscuit World Facebook page. There is a line break, and then, the reveal: "Arguably, we did, the folks at Tudor’s Biscuit World."
Can it be true that the folks at Tudor’s Biscuit World invented the biscuit sandwich now being imitated at expensive cafes across the north? Consider their story: For years, William (husband) and Mae Tudor (wife) would stop at a "quaint ‘mom and pop’ shop" near Mt. Airy, North Carolina, on their way from their home in Greensboro to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, where they frequently traveled. The quaint mom-and-pop shop specialized in country ham biscuits on which the Tudors would feast; after several years, they realized this mom and pop were onto something. In 1975, about 20 years after this story begins, they decided to nick it for themselves. Handily, Bill Tudor had experience in the restaurant business, as the manager and "idea guy" of a Greensboro spot called Pizzaville. He approached the Pizzaville leadership and suggested they might double their sales if they had a breakfast option, and he believed it ought to be biscuit sandwiches. Soon after, there was Biscuitville. ("Just ask Maurice!")
By 1980, Bill and Mae were feeling restless; they didn’t want to "make someone else rich off [their] idea." They seem to have been victims—or beneficiaries—of the fallacy of originality: According to Egerton, Jack Fulk, the owner of a Hardee’s franchise in Charlotte, North Carolina, began selling his own "passably decent" biscuits for breakfast around the same time, and in 1977 he started a chain centered around a perfected Cajun-style recipe: Bojangles’. Nevertheless, the Tudors moved up to Charleston, where Tudor’s—a far superior restaurant to Biscuitville, according to one Facebook commenter—was born, and has more or less flourished ever since.
have relayed the down-home strangeness of "Tudor’s Biscuit World," its full name coming awkwardly and a little guiltily out of my mouth, at more than one party. People’s images of West Virginia are usually related to some awful news story (fracking, contaminated water, the heroin epidemic) or over-compensatory (flowery descriptions of honest landscapes), and I tend to veer towards the former. If I wanted to, I could use Tudor’s to construct some kind of positive metaphor for the state—take this delicious biscuit sandwich, hearty and affordable, as proof: The place is simple, friendly, and good—but perhaps another reason I don’t write much about where I’m from is that I find it a mostly futile enterprise. No one really cares about West Virginia’s honest landscapes unless they are being blown apart by coal companies, and even then they don’t care that much.
If I wanted to, I could use Tudor’s to construct some kind of positive metaphor for the state: The place is simple, friendly, and good—but perhaps another reason I don’t write much about where I’m from is that I find it a mostly futile enterprise.
Besides, until it takes its own turn towards the bleak, the reality is kitschier. In 2014, a high school cheerleader made a ceramic model of a sausage biscuit meal, including the Tudor’s butter-yellow wax wrapper, for an art class, and John Tudor, Bill’s son and heir to Biscuit World, paid her $100 for it. ("It's a good feeling that people want to do that," Tudor told Huntington’s Herald-Dispatch. "[Tudor’s] has that country, home-time feel, and people gravitate to it.") The next year, a local country band called Boulevard Avenue released a Tudor’s tribute album called Biscuits as Usual. Some of my classmates would get two Peppis every morning. Despite the proliferation of prissy $12 versions elsewhere in America, people fucking love these biscuit sandwiches.
They are pretty delicious, if heavy to the untrained palate. The ideal biscuit is a delicate balance of fluff and butter; the Tudor’s biscuit is that, consistently, and what they put on it is compatible, in that the fillings are as rich, salty, and greasy as the vehicle. A friend of mine argues that sandwiches must make a choice between highlighting the bread or the filling. He is not from West Virginia; Tudor’s does not make that choice.
In the introduction to his book For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, Jedediah Purdy uses West Virginia—the place where he "first knew things that…were real, trustworthy, and mine"—to contrast the exhausting self-referential self-awareness that pervades our culture. The book is a critique of irony, arguing for the free expression of earnest desires and hopes and trust, so West Virginia plays a noble role. For Purdy, who was born and raised on "a small hillside farm in the steep, ragged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains," "West Virginia was not an ironic place." Elsewhere, self-awareness has rendered everything in politics, the media, and language itself unreal, untrustworthy, and manipulated by corporations and politicians looking to sell us something. "We cannot speak of atonement or apology without knowing how those words have been put to cynical, almost morally pornographic use by politicians," he writes. "Even in solitary encounters with nature, bicycling on a country road or hiking on a mountain path, we reluctant ironists realize that our pleasure in these places has been anticipated by a thousand L. L. Bean catalogues, Ansel Adams calendars, and advertisements promising a portion of the rugged or bucolic life."
Purdy goes on to describe his idyllic, nature-heavy childhood, a time of boundless learning and exploration of the over-100-acre property where his parents decided to do some experimental self-sufficient living. (The Purdy kids were homeschooled, but in the good way.) In West Virginia, he writes, "[t]here was not much talk of trust, hope, or reliance; but there was a great deal of each of those, so thoroughly present that there was no need to name them. They were bound up in the things we did name."
By virtue of being a kind of cheesy regional chain, Tudor’s may have escaped the $12 Brooklyn/Ansel Adams treatment, but its bizarre purity also represents an isolation from the rest of the world.
I agree that West Virginia is the least ironic place I’ve ever been. But for me, the unadulterated representation of that earnestness is not happy intellectual frolicking on the side of mountain, but a beloved biscuit sandwich chain, hearty and affordable, simple, friendly, and good.
There’s a downside to being free of irony, though. Like many West Virginians, I did not grow up in a picturesque holler but in a normal house in an unremarkable town cut through by a main road and demarcated by two interstate exits about nine miles apart. Although the wealthier eastern side had more and more exciting dining possibilities—most notably "Taste of Asia"—both featured some of the same things: a Subway, a Taco Bell, a McDonald’s, a Mexican restaurant, and a Tudor’s. It was—and is—extremely boring. By virtue of being a kind of cheesy regional chain, Tudor’s may have escaped the $12 Brooklyn/Ansel Adams treatment, but its bizarre purity also represents an isolation from the rest of the world. "I’m always disappointed Tudor’s doesn’t have a more ambitious business plan," another friend (this one from West Virginia) tells me. "They would make a killing with a late-night menu in a place like Chicago."
n 2009, the West Virginia House of Delegates was scheduled to hear a bill that would require most chain restaurants in the state to post calorie counts alongside everything they serve. While upsetting, this would probably be good for West Virginia, which has the second-highest obesity rating—and the highest rates of adult diabetes and high blood pressure—in the country. But before the session could get going, Oshel Craigo, a former state senator and current CEO of Tudor’s Biscuit World and Gino’s Pizzeria (you often find them paired, as at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, where they comprise the only restaurant), showed up, with bags of biscuits for everyone. The legislation on the agenda was basically forgotten; the state’s few bloggers ridiculed the corrupt politicians, who talked with their mouths full and were apparently willing to "sell [themselves] for a biscuit."
Bigger-deal politicians have used Tudor’s as well, though in the national arena the restaurant functions more as a symbol of West Virginia’s darling irrelevance than an effective bribe. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was poised to lose the presidential nomination against Barack Obama, she visited with voters at a Tudor’s in Charleston. She won the state, but it didn’t matter. (Reports say she "skipped the biscuit counter.") While visiting the state to announce a $133 million plan to combat heroin and painkiller addiction seven years later, Barack Obama mentioned Tudor’s, too. "Well, hello, West Virginia! Go, Mountaineers!" the president began. "It is great to be back in what is clearly one of the most beautiful states in the United States of America. One of these days, I’m going to finally try a TWO-door’s Biscuit."
How he came to his pronunciation, I cannot say; the word also refers to an English dynasty of wide-reaching influence, out of which were made many popular historical novels and an HBO original series. Nevertheless, West Virginians—who have always thought Obama the type of guy who gives the Politician sandwich a bad name—were offended, but it didn’t matter, either.
etting to West Virginia is much harder than it should be. If you’re coming from New York, the journey to Charleston is about nine hours by car; you eventually end up on edgy mountain roads that run through towns like "Big Otter" and make people sick, or nervous. Flying, the trip requires a layover and at least one small, scary plane (and makes people sick, or nervous); it also usually costs as much or more than it would to go to Los Angeles, Mexico City, or any number of more obviously exciting destinations. Often, you must connect through Detroit, or Atlanta, or Chicago, cities that are not only not close to being on the way but are also pretty far out of it. Sometimes, you get Philadelphia, where you will almost certainly miss your connection because of a previous delay, and there will not be another flight for eight or ten or 16 hours. Why you are even going to West Virginia in the first place becomes something you question. Most likely, you are from there, or you have serious romantic obligations to someone who is.
The last time I had Tudor’s, I was in town with a boyfriend, who had responded to my promises of a classic West Virginia dish by asking me over and over when we would get to go to the scone restaurant. We were both excited: he because he loved America and its ridiculous foods, despite having a kind of weak stomach that ends most forays into large sandwiches about halfway through; me because they are good biscuits, and because I was finally getting to share their peculiarity with someone from my life outside West Virginia. I was also proud, I think, to have a unique experience—a biscuit uncorrupted by corporations and politicians—to justify the trip.
We pulled up to the drive-thru window, vintage-fonted letters, sausage-patty brown, faded photos, and contemplated. He ordered something ridiculous; I got a Dottie, which is conservative and meat-free but also has a geometric hash-brown formation, which I love. We decided to eat our biscuits in the park that overlooks "the reservoir"; in the summer, it has a fountain that lights up and all the time is across the street from a popular orthodontist. If you were driving by on the main road, you could have seen us, two small people sitting on a red picnic bench unwrapping the butter-yellow wax wrapper and laughing at glowing splotches of American cheese.
Upon first bite, my boyfriend at the time exclaimed something that expressed a combination of appreciation and fear: The biscuits are too good. I’d like to be able to adopt some of the hearty, wholesome goodness that being from West Virginia implies here—the kind that allows a person to wolf down a biscuit sandwich of politically unknown calories with a smile—but the truth is that neither of us could finish it.
Lauren Oyler is an editor at Broadly.
Editor: Matt Buchanan
Header photo by Justin Grimes/Flickr; sign photo by Brent Moore/Flickr; Hillary Clinton photo by Joe Raedle/Getty