Carla and I are wrapping up a week’s vacation and tonight we got blindsided by awful news. PJ Neumann, co-owner of Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey, has passed away. Out of respect to his family’s privacy at a time when things are nuts and everyone is trying to sort things out I don’t want to go into details, especially considering I don’t have many of them anyway. From my perspective they’re exactly that: details. The only thing that matters is that he’s gone. And I don’t like that one bit.
Most people who knew PJ knew him better than I did. To me he was one of Carla’s favorite students ever. I don’t say that lightly. There aren’t that many. She’s been teaching for a very long time and you could fill up a pretty good-sized zip-code with them and have some left over. But there are a few that took up residence in her heart. PJ was definitely on the short list.
That’s not supposed to be in past-tense, damn it. This sucks.
We would be out somewhere on the town and if it was someplace PJ worked (Rock Bottom was where it started) we’d make sure to see if he was working. Or we wouldn’t know he was working and he’d see us and come over. The next morning or sometime later Carla would just blurt out “It was so good to see PJ.” And I’d agree. He seemed like a good guy.
We celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary this past July and we decided we wanted to have our meal at Boomtown. I’d never been there, but I’d heard so many good things from so many people. I spend much of my time in a daze and, while I knew PJ was involved in the management there, I’d somehow completely spaced on the fact that he co-owned the place. I’m an idiot sometimes.
The minute we were through the door PJ was there to greet us. While we had a really nice server who was well up to the job, PJ kept coming over to check in on us. It was during one of these interludes that he touched my life in an important way that will stay with me for the rest of mine. It’s probably going to sound silly, but I find life to be a largely meaningless trek from one moment to the next that occasionally gets interrupted by something worth getting out of bed for.
For me, one of those things is biscuits. (Cats are another). I don’t know if that make me simple or complicated, but it’s a part of my personal ontology. I’m 56 years old and I still haven’t made my best biscuit yet. The food scientist Shirley Corriher has an extended riff on how “tender-flaky” biscuits are a holy grail that can happen, but the odds are stacked against you. I’ve tried — and subjected Carla to — dozens of techniques. Some even came close to working.
I’d been making some good progress, and one time when PJ came out that night we started talking biscuits. Understand something: this is a restaurant that has the word ‘biscuit’ in the name. He could have copped an attitude. He could have gone the “secret recipe” route and what could I have really said? But he didn’t. He shared a technique I wasn’t aware of and has been transformative to doing a thing that makes me happy in a world where not much does.
Freeze the butter. Grate it into the flour, including some between each layer when folding.
Oh. My. God. Good low-protein flour (rhymes with “White Lily”), frozen grated butter and impatience (so you don’t work the dough too much). I’ve still not made the best biscuit I ever will, but I’m closer now than I was before. And I have PJ to thank.
We were talking about going back down sometime. I so wanted thank him in person for the hint. Now I won’t be able to and I’m equal parts pissed at him and sad. Carla is gutted. I’m gutted. Dude, you’re supposed to be here. I’m a casual acquaintance, really. I cannot begin to comprehend the pain for those who were really close. My heart goes out to all of you.
We touch the lives of everyone we meet. Most of the time it’s a good thing and we’re utterly unaware of it. PJ was a good guy and the world was better place with him in it. I doubt he knew. One never does. Keep his family and friends in your hearts. There’s an awful big hole in all of their lives now.
Thanks PJ. I’m thankful for what I learned and I wish I’d learned more. Rest well.