Photo by David Campbell
Each biscuit is a buttery bit of family legacy.
I can remember my grandmother’s hands, small hands covered in wet flour as she made biscuits every morning. A native of rural Louisiana, she passed away almost a decade ago at 87 years old. Those biscuits were a staple in the hardscrabble world she inhabited, nine children raised on bread from her kitchen. When I was a kid living just down the gravel road from my grandparents in Natalbany, Louisiana, I’d rise early to eat those hot “cat head” biscuits fresh out of the oven.
My mother’s generation gave up on the old ways. They ate biscuits but didn’t make them from scratch. All of the biscuits cooked in our home came from a tube, “whop” biscuits beat on the side of the Formica countertop and baked in an electric oven.
Several years back, I ran into a cousin that I hadn’t seen in a long time. He bemoaned the loss of Grandma and her biscuits. He asked for her recipe before she died, but she had no recipe. Instead, she let him watch her make biscuits, and he wrote down the steps in a notebook. Unfortunately, he lost the notebook and her biscuit recipe forever.
It didn’t sit right with me. I dwelled on the loss for weeks. It was a tragedy. Not only do we lose a library when an old person dies, but in this case, I lost the best memory I have of my maternal grandmother.
Not long after the conversation with my cousin, our family was on vacation visiting in-laws in Arkansas. On a whim, I offered to cook biscuits for breakfast the next morning. Everyone knew I only “cooked” oatmeal in a microwave. My offer was met with guffaws, which I took as a challenge.
One of my best buddies, David Campbell, lives in rural Mississippi. His mother was about my grandmother’s age. David and I have talked about biscuits many times, and he prides himself on making his mother’s biscuits.
I had a plan. I sneaked outside the Arkansas house where I couldn’t be heard with my cell phone and put in a mayday call, my trusty spiral bound notebook and pen at the ready. Thank goodness David answered.
“Hey, I’m in a bad bind. I need to make your mother’s biscuits. Can you help me?”
“Sure. It’s not hard. But I don’t have a recipe. I just do it by feel.”
“Okay,” I said, but I didn’t like the word “feel.”
“You’ll need some Crisco, the solid kind, milk, and self-rising flour.”
“Yeah. But you’ll also need a big mixing bowl and a pan to bake the biscuits in. First, pour a tall mound of flour in the bowl. Then you wallow out a deep hole in the middle of the flour and put in a three-finger lump of Crisco. Use the Crisco left on your fingers to grease the baking pan. Fill the flour hole with milk and start at the center and knead the flour. It takes some time. Be patient. Continue reaching for more flour and working it in from the edges. If you need more milk, pour a little extra. After a while, you’re going to have a solid ball worked up, and all of the loose flour will be gone. When it feels right, not too dry or too sticky, pull off dough the size you want, roll it in your palm, and put it in the greased pan. Always keep fresh flour on your hands to stop the biscuits from sticking. Cook at 425 degrees til they’re brown on top.”
“I think I understand. You just saved my reputation,” I said.
“Let’s hope,” he said.
The next morning, I cooked biscuits for the first time in my life. They were a little heavy but edible, better than store-bought. My good name saved, I’ve been at it ever since.
Making good biscuits takes practice. If you need written directions after the first time, you don’t know how to do it. Keep trying until you get it right. Making biscuits is an art, not a science, and personal experience leads to a unique style of biscuit-making. For example, I use buttermilk when I have it instead of regular whole milk.
To be sure that I pass on the art of biscuit-making to the next generation, I always get our seven-year-old son to pour the buttermilk. You should see the grin on his face when he helps out.
Sometimes on Saturdays I make biscuits for family and friends. I’ve joked that if I wanted to run for public office, I’d invite a new crowd over for biscuits each weekend. Within six months I could win local office. I’d call the program “a biscuit in every plate” in honor of Governor Huey P. Long. I do believe you can win hearts, minds, and even votes with just the right biscuit.
Dayne Sherman is a writer, speaker and author of Welcome to the Fallen Paradise: A Novel.