The best way to explain an Eastern North Carolina cheese biscuit is first to explain what it is not.
It is not a biscuit with shredded cheese worked into the dough, like those served at Red Lobster. It is not a biscuit cut in half and glued together with a slice of melted cheese, like the Cheddar Bo served at Bojangles, mainly east of Interstate 95 in North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.
You have to eat one before you can wrap your mind around what it is: a biscuit with a hunk of hoop cheese baked in the center.
The crisp outer shell of the biscuits at Abrams restaurant in Tarboro is more remniscent of dinner rolls than tender breakfast biscuits. While the greasy cheese filling turns some folks off, it leaves fans plotting how to get their next fix.
Whenever Melissa Pitt of Tarboro is near Abrams, she says, I have to come by here. Sitting in the drive-thru line, she explains why: The cheese I dont know its unbelievable.
For a four-star cheese biscuit encounter, you have to live east of I-95 or make the early morning drive to Tarboro, Wilson or Grimesland. You want to go to a mom and pop restaurant like Abrams or Peadens Grill in Greenville or gas station grills for a fresh batch. Cheese biscuits are ethereal things. Leftover biscuits wrapped in foil and left under the warming lights do not compare to the flaky, gooey delight of one fresh from the oven.
The thing with hoop cheese once it does cool down, it becomes tough, explains Wendy Brady, manager at Abrams.
Owner Gerald Abrams claims to have been the first to take the cheese biscuit out of the home kitchen and onto the restaurant buffet. His to-go containers proudly proclaim Home of the Original Cheese Biscuit.
Heres how the cheese biscuits ended up on Abrams menu: He opened his first restaurant in Tarboro in 1974. One Friday in 1978, Abrams added his mothers cheese biscuits to the breakfast offerings. Word spread fast. The following Saturday, we couldnt keep up, he says. He now sells them at four other locations and plans to put them on the menu when he opens a sixth in Ahoskie by years end.
Baker Chaquanta Poole starts at 4:30 a.m. to have biscuits ready to go when the Tarboro restaurant opens at 6. By 7 a.m., about 100 cheese biscuits will have gone out the door. On the busiest days Saturdays and the first of the month they will sell 700 biscuits, each for $1.99. Brady says customers will wait 20 minutes without complaint for a fresh cheese biscuit.
At least one competitor takes issue with Abrams claim to have been the first to sell them.
Thats a bunch of bull, says Linda Brewer, owner of Flos Kitchen in Wilson. She opened the restaurant with her mother, Florence Williams, in the late 1980s. Brewer says her mom made cheese biscuits at other country cooking restaurants around Wilson as far back as the late 1970s.
No matter which restaurant served them first, everyone agrees that they migrated from the home kitchen.
I think all grandmas made them, Brady says. My grandma made them.
They seem to be peculiar to a corridor in Eastern North Carolina, east of I-95 and between highways 64 and 264 in towns like Washington, Leggett and Rocky Mount. Several Southern cookbook authors and food historians, including Nathalie Dupree, who wrote a cookbook devoted to Southern biscuits last year, have never heard of them.
A visit to the Tarboro public library turned up just two cheese-biscuit recipes in community cookbooks, including one from Cilles Table: Selected Recipes of Lucille Joyner Sexton, published in 1999. That book was compiled by Ellen Weiner of Greensboro, who wanted to get her mothers recipes into print. Weiner, who grew up in Tarboro, recalls eating the biscuits since at least 1960.
All through my childhood, mother made those biscuits, Weiner says.
Similar memories could be heard on a recent morning among Abrams customers. Christine Crisp, Norma Armstrong, Dot Dawson and Jacquie Rhodes meet every Thursday for breakfast and the free coffee the restaurant offers senior citizens.
This morning, it is absolutely delicious, says Crisp, who remembers her mom making the biscuits but prefers Abrams. I like a good brown biscuit.
At least in Tarboro, the women agree, theres only one place to go for a cheese biscuit.
You say Abrams, Armstrong says, and you think cheese biscuit.
To see a printable version of the recipe, click on the name below: