I stood in line to pay my gas and coffee bill at the Food Mart filling station in Drain, Oregon, gateway to Highway 34 to Reedsport, the most sublime drive from the Willamette Valley to the Oregon Coast.
Drain. Named after Charles Drain. What the hell did he do to warrant a town named for him? It is a good and bad name for a town. It offers its residents a cruel metaphor (going down the drain) or an empowering one (drain the swamp).
Really, what is Drain all about?
To me, the line seemed surprisingly long for a weekday morning in Drain. A few seconds into my waiting, I noticed most customers weren’t paying for gas or any other food or drink item. They were just waiting.
Something resting on the counter near the cash register caught my eye: a large crock pot of gravy, thick and steaming, with a shiny metal ladle sticking out. I’d never seen such a thing in all my years of noticing of rural Oregon convenience store oddities and there are a lot of them out there, I assure you.
A middle-aged woman ahead of me ordered a basket of biscuits and gravy. She started fishing out change, but the female clerk preparing the order reminded her the price had just gone up 50 cents to $2.50.
She didn’t have it. A customer behind her threw down a couple quarters and solved the problem. The woman gathered up the basket, walked outside, mounted a bicycle, and rode away.
Yes, I saw a woman riding a bicycle in Drain, Oregon with one hand while carrying a basket of biscuits and gravy in the other. I also saw gravy spilling on the street.
When I came to the counter, I asked the clerk about the gravy as she was ladling up another order. They were ten people deep for gravy in Drain. My curiosity had dammed up gravy.
She told me the tradition had been going on for over a decade. Customers came from Eugene, Roseburg, Coos Bay, Elkton. They always ran out by noon and they never whipped up a second batch. You wanted good gravy in Drain, you had to get up early.
What is Drain about dammit? Drain is about gravy, legendary biscuits and gravy, the best biscuits and gravy in Oregon or the entire Pacific Northwest for that matter, perhaps the entire country, but not the world because the rest of the world doesn’t matter when it comes to biscuits and gravy. They don’t serve biscuits and gravy in France or Mongolia.
I started taking notes about gravy on a napkin meant for gravy. More people entered the store and got in line.
The Food Mart’s owner materialized and I introduced myself as a writer. I told him this Drain biscuits and gravy story was simply incredible and must be included. I asked him if anyone had ever written a story about it. No one had.
I would scoop them all on this second greatest Oregon biscuits and gravy story of all time. Back in the summer of 1993, in Portland, I lived through the best one, totally improbable. I was a connoisseur of the dish and once had a breakfast date with the actress Heather Graham where I took her to my favorite dive bar in Portland for biscuits and gravy after a one night stand. (See my book Rose City Heist for the full true account of all the tasty details. It sold out a couple of years ago but is available as an e-book on my web site.)
I almost forgot to mention that during that same era, I played guitar in a band named Gravy and that Willamette Week once named us the Best Mediocre Rock Band in Portland.
The owner beckoned me away from the line so I wouldn’t continue to impede the flow of gravy and interrupt the natural workings of the universe in Drain.
“Tell me a hot biscuits and gravy story,” I said.
He then told me about a man on a 200-mile walk for charity who had walked into the Food Mart and wolfed down an order. He reappeared several days later and said he had walked an extra hundred miles so he could eat another order.
A man walked a hundred miles for gravy in Drain.
I know that somewhere down the line, this sentence is going to end up in my detective novel and that book will make me a fortune. I’ll be in the gravy and look up Heather.
There is something about writing “gravy” and “drain” in the same sentence that excites me in a way I can’t yet comprehend. Perhaps I never will.
“Tell me about the gravy,” I said.
“It’s a family recipe,” he said.
“A secret one, right?”
“That’s right, from the South.”
I left it at that. I’ll make it up later for the novel.
The owner seemed happy about the prospect of a story. We shook hands and I drifted away to take a photograph of the crock pot. More people started showing up. They came on foot, bicycles and skateboards. A cop car rolled into the parking lot, too.
No, I didn’t put in an order. I hadn’t eaten biscuits and gravy in 20 years. I wasn’t there yet. I was a vegetarian for over 20 years and feared the power of Drain gravy.
But…three months later, with Drain gravy on the brain, I pulled into Food Mart again on my way to an existential errand on the Oregon Coast. A 70-year old woman was sitting on a stool near one of the pumps. I told her I wanted 20 bucks worth of regular and asked if the crock pot was still full. It was nearing 9:30 a.m. She told me they had plenty left.
Whatever leftover remained she would no doubt take home and feed to her family and pets for every meal of the day. Imagine that household.
It was time for the legend. I might never return to Drain.
I got out of the car and approached the Food Mart. A tall woman in her 30s with flowing blonde dreadlocks and a pierced nose sat at on overturned bucket near the entrance. She was wearing the Food Mart uniform, which made her, impossibly, an employee.
She got up and greeted me. I told her I was there for an order of biscuits and gravy. She had an accent I couldn’t quite place…and then did. South African.
A dreadlocked woman from South Africa with a pierced nose was about to serve me biscuits and gravy in Drain, Oregon. I was getting it to go. The idea was to eat it for breakfast near Reedsport, while looking at elk after the drive through the Coast Range and along the Umpqua River.
We went inside. I was the only customer. I asked her for a half order and how much it cost.
Two dollars she said and ladled up the order into a huge Styrofoam box. She handed it to me and I opened it. There was enough biscuits and gravy to feed four people and two dogs. This was a half order? It was a $17 full order in a fancy breakfast joint in Portland where people waited two hours in line and the gravy is more gruel than gravy. I tipped her two bucks. She winked. Her nose wiggled Bewitched style.
I smelled the legend and immediately wanted a bloody mary. If we lived in a civilized country I could have gotten one to go as well.
Time to head west. I thanked the South African and the gas pumper and edged out onto Highway 36. The biscuits and gravy rode shotgun and its aroma quickly enveloped the car. I was getting a bit dizzy and turned on some air and the radio, and locked in a FM station.
Thirty seconds later, I was stopped in the highway behind a dozen cars. An ODOT crew was clearing a landslide and clearing it slowly.
I looked at the Styrofoam box. Why not? I wasn’t going anywhere for ten minutes, maybe longer. I opened the box and found a plastic fork ready to Gravy and Roll. “Beat It,” by Michael Jackson came on the radio.
There was congealed crawling movement inside the box. I forked the legend into my mouth. My God! The lard. The chunks. The texture. The spice. I ate half the order by the time “Beat It” concluded. The flagger turned her sign around and we started moving. A few seconds later, smoke from slash piles aflame in the nearby hills drifted across the roadway and visibility all but disappeared. It was smoke the color of gravy. Things begin to feel heavy, leaden. “US Blues” by the Grateful Dead came on the radio. My eyelids collapsed every now and then.
I woke up looking at a herd of elk in a field. They were sitting down in a circle. The Styrofoam box was licked clean. There were also my notes written on the box. I gathered I wrote them although I ha no recollection of doing so. They were notes for a murder mystery where biscuits and gravy played a sinister role. They were a murder weapon.