Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Biscuits for Caroline

My friend Caroline recently left this comment on my Facebook wall:
"I've always wondered why you don't post your pieces on your blog? Oh by the way - YOUHAVEABLOG"

It's true. I rarely post the stories I write for The Tennessean here -- partly because they get archived after a couple weeks, and then the links will ask for your money. But given that my posting here has been like molasses lately, I thought I could paste some stories into the body of the blog -- just to get me back in the groove.

I'm starting with last week's story about biscuits. I've been thinking about them a lot lately. A few Saturdays ago, I met a friend at The Beacon Light Tea Room in Bon Aqua, Tennessee, for some of the best biscuits I've tasted -- made with lard, small, flaky-light.

Visiting the Beacon Light sort of feels like going to Sunday School in a dark fellowship hall basement of a Baptist church. Crosses and paintings of Jesus hang on the walls, and plastic loaves of bread sit on each table holding strips of scripture.

I love that my dining companion brought in a box of brown sugar to make his own "brown sugar gravy." He told me it's something his dad and grandfather would make by mixing up a soupy spread of butter, sugar and coffee.

My dad once told me that my grandfather liked his biscuits crumbled up in coffee with cream and sugar.

Everybody has their thing. Biscuits are personal. Which is why I wrote this...


by Jennifer Justus

The Tennessean

Ask 100 different people for the key to making a perfect biscuit, and you'll get 100 different answers. Some swear by lard. Others use only Crisco or butter. Size matters. And then there's process:

"Don't twist the cutter," says Nashville home cook Angel Funk.

"No sweaty palms allowed," insists chef Avon Lyons.

Just like barbecue, biscuits are personal. So much so that when we posed the "best biscuit" question to Southern food aficionado Pat Martin, of Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville, he had only one solution: Drive to Mississippi and taste his grandmother's.

French novelist Marcel Proust would recognize the sentiment. What the madeleine evoked in his Remembrance of Things Past, the biscuit is in the American South. No ratio of buttermilk, flour and soda could mean more than the sum of a biscuit's parts. More often than not, biscuits come connected to a memory of a person. Someone along the way taught us how to like them.

So with entire books devoted to biscuit recipes and opinions — and a tale to go with each one — I only know one way to write about this bread: Tell my story, in hopes you'll give me yours.

My mother called them "whop 'em biscuits," because she whopped the can on the side of counter to crack it open. No, I didn't come from a foodie family. We didn't grow fresh herbs in the garden or spend hours stirring slow-simmering pots. My parents worked hard outside the kitchen and didn't spend much time in it. We even had a couple of lost years when a hole in the counter sat like a vast canyon where the oven should have been. But mom's canned biscuits, instant mashed potatoes and chili chunked into a pot directly from the can might have been her best food gift to me, because she left me with a curiosity about food — real food — and an openness to experience it with gusto from any person who would share it with me. My brother, who subsisted on after-school snacks of frozen Steak-umms and Tang (as did I), will now dirty every pot in the kitchen to make an elaborate, home-cooked meal.

"Discovering food was like discovering a new world for us," he says.

The only real biscuit-maker in my past was my grandmother. An elementary school lunch lady (when lunch ladies still cooked), she raised eight children at home and thousands more at school on homemade biscuits served at nearly every meal. The trouble is, I don't remember my grandmother's biscuits. She died before I knew I should appreciate them. So when the baking soda content of a Loveless Cafe biscuit sparked my dad's memory over lunch recently, I sopped up every word.

"Do you know her recipe?" I asked hopefully.

"I don't even think she knew it," he replied.

She never measured a morsel. She simply dumped flour and buttermilk straight onto the counter, mixing with her hands. She rolled out the dough with a water glass that doubled as a cutter, which she kept stashed in the flour bin.

"If she had a rolling pin, I never saw it," Dad said.

For firsthand biscuit-making experience, therefore, I'd have to go outside the family. So I went to the next best thing: Phila Hach. The 84-year-old Joelton innkeeper has become a mentor and friend, so one night as she whipped up three batches of biscuits for experimentation purposes, I watched at her side.

Phila has cooked all over the world. She's cooked for the entire delegation of the United Nations, and for celebrities including June Carter Cash and Duncan Hines on her cooking show – the first ever broadcast in the South. But when Phila makes biscuits at home, she pulls out bags of flour with their tops ripped off and a small, beat-up bowl. Bent on the bottom, it rattles on the marble table as she tosses the flour with her crooked hands.

"Forgive me, because I don't measure," she says. "But you should."

Phila breaks down her ratios of flour (self-rising or all-purpose) to fat (butter, lard, vegetable shortening or even cream), and offers a nonstop stream of suggestions. "The secret to making a really good biscuit is not to overwork it," she says. "You don't squeeze it, you tumble it. You tumble it exactly 10 times."

It soon becomes clear that great biscuit-making involves a lot of practice. "You feel your biscuits," Phila says. "You feel your bread."

One place where Phila is precise is size. She cuts her biscuits with an old snuff can – a tool that's not manufactured anymore. "I like small biscuits," she says. "I think it's more refined and Southern."

John Egerton, local food writer and historian, agrees. In his tome Southern Food, he writes about the fast-food biscuits that showed up in the 1970s. "They all tend to be as big as hockey pucks. Made-from-scratch Southern biscuits that are smaller, lighter, flakier and more delicate than these lumberjack versions are rarely found in restaurants today."

He also provides some context. Biscuits took their place beside corn bread as a daily favorite in the South when flour from the Midwest became more affordable in the 1880s. Leavening agents such as baking soda and baking powder had become available commercially around 1850. Biscuits were just simple food that became common on Southern tables because of necessity and availability of ingredients.

On my biscuit-making adventure at Phila's, we tasted each type, then determined our favorites. If she's cooking for 400 people, Phila is most likely to make cream biscuits. If she's cooking for four, it'll be buttermilk (sourmilk, as she calls it).

Probably the best stuff from my biscuit night at Phila's, however, was the conversation. Phila spun out story after story, on everything from men to mishaps on her cooking show to her adventures as a flight attendant.

"There's just so much to learn out there," she says. "I just never stop. I wouldn't change a bit of it. I'd just do more of it."

Of course, not every biscuit-maker will agree with Phila's recipe or tips. It's a deeply personal topic, no doubt. But what brings us together about biscuits is that everyone's got a story. Even one that starts with a can from a grocery store and ends with the next best thing to a grandmother a woman could have. Because grandmothers might teach you how to make their best biscuits, but the best grandmothers also teach you how to live.

That's my biscuit story. Now, tell me yours.


CaRoLiNe said...

WOOOOHOOOOOO!!! Tears of pride and joy! I truly do love your writing style.......just wish there was more of it! Xoxoxoxo

K. Traylor said...

I love this article! Nice photos, too. I hope you don't mind that I shared one on my Tumblr, here.

I grew up in North Carolina, but we're transplants with no Southern ancestors that I know of. My mom used to work out in the YMCA weight room, and she made friends with a guy there who owned a restaurant called Biscuit Time. The restaurant is, sadly, long gone, but the biscuits were amazing-- soft and fluffy and exactly buttery enough, and usually served right out of the oven. (I actually worked there for a summer or two, so I became well acquainted with those biscuits.)

My mom had never made biscuits before, except for the canned ones, but she persuaded her friend the biscuit-baker to share her recipe. Somehow, though, they completely changed when she made them-- they ended up big and dense and heavy, like something you'd give a sailor on a long sea voyage. We always loved them, though, and went through dozens in a few days. I'll have to see if I can get her to make them again! :)