23 March, 2007

Biscuits and Gravy at the Searchlight Cafe

The state of Nevada has an interesting shape. In the precise language of Mathematics, she is defined as a trapezoid. “She?!?” Oh beloved, I can hear the rumblings of the politically correct police. OK, I might be accused of being gender specific in my cavalier use of the pronoun “she”. This Eurocentric, sky god defined left brain trained male of the genus and species “Homo Sapien” still sees the earth as Gaia, very female, and a very fertile woman. It is who I am and it is just the way things are.

My Roman Catholic brothers and sisters perceive the edifice of church buildings as the physical manifestation of the Blessed Virgin. In doing so, they hold a reverence for these buildings as the blessed female body who bore our Savior Christ and now births, nurtures and educates the children of God; so I see the geographic parameters of these United States, most particularly in the Southwest. Her story is written in the sweat and blood of Indigenous Natives, Roman Jesuits, French trappers, British surveyors, Welch stonemasons, Italian farmers, Dutch merchants and the continuing fecund mass of immigrants who seek the approximation of perfection in this land. Their restless spirit is scribed in rocky desert trails, high mountain passes and wagon paths along cottonwood shaded rivers. However, this is a tangential thread, important to the core structure of my thesis, yet only a sidebar to the essence of this specific essay.

Let’s return to Nevada’s geographic shape. Up north, she’s very straightforward and square, akin to most of her sister states west of the turbid Mississippi River. On Nevada’s southeast corner, the Colorado River defines her threadbare and ragged underskirt border with California and Arizona. The river then heads south and comes to a point where it flows into California’s Imperial Valley wandering on to her final meeting with the ocean in the Gulf of California. All that is left of the once raging flow is a trickle of brackish water. The whole of the Colorado River has been portioned out and used up by thirsty humans in our quest to create a perfect Eden in the desert.

Back upstream, some thirty miles southeast of Las Vegas, Boulder City was built on the barren volcanic rock plateau above the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. Boulder City would not exist but for the need to house engineers, construction workers and their support personnel during the construction of Hoover Dam; that massive concrete impoundment, built between 1931and 1935 which tamed the raging red river to provide water storage and electric power for the swelling population of the Southwest.

One chapter of my part in this story takes place on U.S. Highway 95 that runs south out of Boulder City. The asphalt two lane runs past State Road 165, State Road 164 at Searchlight and State Road 163 that runs east to the gambling mecca of Laughlin on the mighty Colorado River. If you follow it on south out of Nevada, Highway 95 runs into Interstate 40 at Needles, California. This section of I-40, From Oklahoma City to Barstow, California, follows the ghost of Steinbeck’s “Mother Road” the legend haunted Route 66. That indeed is a whole other volume of stories.

Have you noticed how we define the Southwest is inextricably bound up in her water and roads? Rivers and asphalt, beloved, water and wagon tracks tell the tales. Roads are built to convey goods and personnel across the broad expanse and endless miles ‘tween mines, mills and growing cities. These cities cannot exist in the desiccate desert without a basic commodity, water. It’s a truth that cannot be overlooked. The history of the Southwest is written in her rivers and on her roads.

Between Boulder City and the turn off to Laughlin, highway 95 is a desolate, seemingly gunbarrel straight two lane through the northeast quadrant of the burning Mojave desert. There is a single major intersection in this harsh, monotone beauty. That intersection is the town of Searchlight.

Searchlight is an old mining community, founded as the "Searchlight Mining District" after gold ore was discovered in1897. The population grew to over 2,000 souls until the mines played out. Today, about five hundred folks receive their mail at Searchlight. On the main highway there is a Cafe/Trading Post/Gas Station and a small Casino (It is, after all, Nevada.). Searchlight is one of those crossroad towns that exist on the fringe of modern life. The few who call themselves residents are retirees, desert rats, ranchers and a few struggling miners. The town survives in part by providing services to sun seeking snowbirds and travelers headed for some other destination.

In the late spring of 1997, I was visiting a woman friend who lives in Las Vegas. We were having a long distance relationship and decided it was time to find out if we were "right" for each other. (This is one of the core construct desires in our search for the approximation of perfection, but that, dear ones, is another tale!) She is a tall, slim hipped, striking and stately Aires, full of fiery passion for her two grown sons and the hope of grandkids to come. Aires (not her real name) is a successful real estate broker and desert rat who hates the thought of cold or snow, and doesn’t think much of rain. Like sparkling red steel hot from the forge, she’s been tempered by Fate’s hammer and the Mojave’s desert anvil into a supple blade. We had left Vegas early one morning, headed for Laughlin and the river. Chance or fate, who knows which, caused us to stop to fuel up both body and vehicle at the cafe in Searchlight. And that, beloved, was when the glistening, greasy grinned god of roadhouse food dropped one of his greatest jewels right in my belly.

Now, beloved, you must understand a crucial point before I continue. When I began my short career as a hirsute student at Western State College in Gunnison, CO, I also undertook a minor quest of sorts in search of a culinary grail. That was in the year of 1967. Here is how it began:

There used to be a cafe in Almont, Colorado that boasted about serving the best biscuits and gravy in Colorado. Almont is a ranching community halfway between Gunnison and the skiing mecca of Crested Butte. The little town sits in the lush Tomiche Creek valley surrounded by mountains. And, like Searchlight, it derives much of its income from the service of travelers bound for some other place. In those early days of hippiedom, we who were hip, or thought we were hip, would hitchhike from Gunnison to Crested Butte to revel in the cool, oh-so-trendy renovated miner’s cabins of noveau mountain men and women, ski bums one and all. The cafe in Almont was a way station watering hole on our treks to and from Crested Butte. It was in that funky little highway house where I first had the vision of finding the best Biscuits and Gravy in the Southwest.

Since that day I have ingested plenteous platters of biscuits and gravy all across the Southwest. From cookie cutter chain restaurants to questionable greasy dives on back highways, in places with names like Tucumcari, Tees-Nos-Pas and Mexican Hat, biscuits and gravy made a cheap, belly filling fuel for footsore; road weary Kerouacian wanderers like myself. I knew what constituted a good plate of "B'n'G" and the cafe in Almont served up a fair plate of the belly busters. Yet, I knew in my hungry little heart that their recipe was not the best. There had to be better.

Then, in that little cafe in Searchlight, I picked up the menu and my eyes fell upon a description of biscuits and gravy that caused my mouth to drop open and my salivary glands to begin to work overtime. Obviously, my reaction was enough to cause Aires to wonder out loud about what I found so damn fascinating on the faded plastic covered menu. With a trembling index finger, I pointed to the description of B’n’G as I explained my thirty-year culinary quest. Her dark eyes brooded. With her head cocked to one side Aires looked at me and spoke that she was puzzled and a bit taken aback that some fool, her new found fool to boot, would spend so long a time searching for the best of a common, cheap, blue collar food. I made the mistake of replying with a statement that questioned her almost fiendish addiction to Coke. This was not the drug, but the drink, Coca-Cola. She literally drank quarts of the stuff from sunup to bedtime. We all have our own little strange addictive behaviors. Aires, well, she loved her Coke. This led to a short but heated dialogue about judgement of one’s individual behavior by one’s partner.

Our little verbal fencing match was interrupted by the arrival the waitress. I took one look at her and I knew that this was going to be an experience to remember. Waitresses can tell a knowledgeable highway hound much about what to expect from a roadhouse kitchen. Had she been young, gum chewing and sullen post adolescent or a hard bitten, bitter-faced bleached blonde, my expectations would have dropped a few notches. However, this lady was perfect. Here was a small plump woman in her late fifties or early sixties. Her wispy white hair was pulled back and tied up in a neat bun. A bright smile lit up her round, lightly tanned face. She did not wear a uniform but dressed in clean Levis and a simple white blouse with a crisp white apron. This beloved, was a lady who loved to serve her customers. She beamed with efficiency.

She asked if we were ready to order. Lordy, was I ready? Thirty years of eating everything from hard rock, tooth cracking lumps slathered with weak, watery gruel to feasting on gloriously light and fluffy clouds swimming in hot and spicy Red Eye gravy had prepared me for this moment. I had to experience the Searchlight Cafe's rendition of Biscuits and Gravy. I ordered the B'n'G with eggs over easy and waited, sipping hot coffee with a distinctly acrid and alkaline flavor. Southern Nevada is not known for the quality of its water. Perhaps this helps explain Aires predilection for Coke. Meanwhile, Aires opted for simple eggs over medium, hash browns and white toast. And yes, she ordered a Coke, winking at me with a wicked grin.

An expectant calm settled over the diner. Aires and I sipped our drinks. We talked of children and the desert and watched each other’s eyes. The slippery tones of a steel guitar solo from some Country-Western tune played in the background. The rhythmic squeak of the kitchen door announced our elderly waitress, her face rosy and smile angelic as she placed our orders on the faded Formica table top. And, beloved, the moment had arrived. I found myself staring at a most amazing sight. Two perfectly cooked eggs danced on top of the largest single biscuit I had ever seen. It was the size of a long haul trucker's fist. Hot, thick glistening gravy, lightly colored tan with specks of coarse ground pepper and tiny flakes of red chile ran down the sides and pooled around the biscuit. There was not an errant drop of grease to be found. Oh, this biscuit with its attendant gravy, this was a close approximation of perfection.

The round, light brown biscuit dough was not whipped up out of standard white flour. This delight was made with corn flour, corn meal along with the regular wheat flour. A huge, fried sausage patty (hot or mild, and I had ordered hot) had been lovingly tucked inside the biscuit dough before it was baked. The flavor of the sausage resonated through the light but hearty hunk of biscuit. The flavors in the gravy didn't smother other flavors or loose their own identity. They enhanced the eggs and biscuit creating a beautiful balance of down home, belly filling delight. Yep, I thought. I had found the best platter of biscuits and gravy in the Southwest United States at a most unlikely spot; The Searchlight Cafe in Southeast Nevada. And I wasted no time telling Aires exactly that. Her dark eyes sparkled and she laughed out loud, shaking her head. She told me I was nuts, in a loving kind of way. We finished eating, paid the tab and headed out into the bright desert day.

Now, that monstrous breakfast felt good in my belly, at least for the next fifteen or so miles. Then, oh beloved, that monstrous breakfast turned into a hot lump of lead churning and burning its slow way through my intestinal track. A quick stop at a drugstore in Lauglin cured the burn. So much for perfection in the gullet.

The search for perfection on this earthly plain is a path that leads us to some unlikely places and circumstances. There are lessons to be learned, taught by the most unlikely teachers, including God’s own revelatory spirit. There, in the center of a most inhospitable and tortured terrain, humankind had literally jack-hammered out a bit of paradise. In doing so, some mother or mother’s son had created an amazing platter of food. Had the Army Corp of Engineers not decided to build Hoover Dam where they did, had Searchlight not been founded where it was, this whole story would most likely not have happened. Had I not chosen to meet Aires, it is unlikely that I would have ever stopped in Searchlight Nevada and eaten what I still consider the best plate of biscuits and gravy in the whole of the Southwest. If Aires and I had not chosen to spend time with one another, we would both have unanswered questions about relationships and soul mates. The tapestry of our lives would be less rich in experience. We chose to meet one another with few, if any, unstated or unconscious expectations. This allowed us the freedom to simply enjoy one another's company while exploring some fascinating country and finding a bit of culinary joy at the Searchlight Cafe.