On many occasions I have tried to explain American biscuits to my South African and European friends.
“They’re not cookies. They’re savoury…kind of like scones,” I say, grasping for words to describe that dense yet flaky, crispy yet soft, impossibly buttery biscuit mouth feel.
“But not really. Actually not at all.”
In the summer of 1991 I worked as a hostess at a Bob Evans restaurant in Columbia, Maryland. Part of my job was to lift thick, fluffy biscuits out of the steel oven, arrange the piping hot biscuits onto plates, and set them onto customers’ tables. I consumed so many biscuits that summer. When customers left with their plates of biscuits untouched (crazy people!), I sometimes carried the plate into the back and gobbled them all down.
It never occurred to me that American biscuits could exist in South Africa, just as it would never occur to a South African that boerewors could exist in America. Biscuits, like many foods originating in the American South, just don’t make sense outside the United States.
Until now. Thanks to Sweet Tea and Chickadee, American biscuits have arrived in Joburg. They totally make sense and they are spectacular.
The Story of Sweet Tea and Chickadee
Natasha Robson-Lovato sounds mostly American, but there’s South-African-ness in her voice if you listen carefully enough. As a teenager, Natasha moved with her family from South Africa to America. She went to school in America and married an American named Jason. The couple lived in Seattle, where Natasha eventually started a restaurant serving South African food to Americans.
Although she lived in the Pacific Northwest, Natasha developed a love for American Southern cuisine — the pork barbecue, pecan pie, shrimp and grits, sweet tea, and biscuits-and-gravy native to places like Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.
When Natasha and Jason packed up and moved from Seattle to Joburg, Natasha decided to bring the flavors of the American South home to South Africa. She named her business Sweet Tea and Chickadee, and started with a food truck.
A few weeks ago that food truck became a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Emmarentia.
Over the last two weeks at least five people told me I must go to Sweet Tea and Chickadee, ASAP. I finally went this past Thursday morning and I can’t overstate how right those people were. My expectations were high, and they were exceeded.
When I walked into Sweet Tea and Chickadee, the first thing I saw were the key lime pies and lemon bars. Key lime pie is a Florida specialty, similar (yet different) to lemon meringue pie. Lemon bars are also similar to lemon meringue pie, but cut into squares and without the meringue, and much tangier and less creamy than the lemon filling you find in South Africa.
I sat down, looked at the menu, and selected one of the biscuit sandwiches: “The Mount Pleasant”, which has pimento cheese, scrambled eggs, and crispy bacon.
How do I explain pimento cheese? Imagine peppadews ground up with mayo and cheddar cheese, but better.
I also ordered sweet tea, a special kind of iced tea served only in the American South. Sweet tea is not just iced tea with sugar added at the time of drinking. You have to add the sugar while the tea is still hot and then chill it in the fridge.
Thandeka brought out my breakfast — the Mount Pleasant served on a cheddar-and-green-onion biscuit.
I sprinkled some Crystal Louisiana Hot Sauce — another flavor I didn’t realize I’ve been missing for the past ten years — over the egg. I took a bite.
Tears sprung into my eyes, and not from the hot sauce.
I chewed slowly, chatted with Natasha, and took a picture of her lovely — all women! — staff.
I bought a lemon bar to go, savouring it at my desk a couple of hours later. The lemon bar was, not surprisingly, scrumptious.
As Forest Gump, the quintessential Southerner, once said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Sweet Tea and Chickadee is 3 Levubu Road, Emmarentia (next to the Craft Beer Library). It’s open Wednesday to Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.